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    Medical school graduation 2020: Some pomp under unusual circumstances

    Virtual commencement ceremonies this month will help launch over 20,000 new medical school graduates into the health care workforce. Here’s what schools are doing to make the day a little bit special.

    On Saturday, May 16, Jourdaen Sanchez will join her classmates from the University of Kansas School of Medicine on a Zoom call to celebrate their accomplishments
    On Saturday, May 16, Jourdaen Sanchez will join her classmates from the University of Kansas School of Medicine on a Zoom call to celebrate their accomplishments. She will receive her MD degree during a schoolwide virtual commencement the following day.
    Courtesy: Jourdaen Sanchez

    As the first in her immediate family to graduate from medical school, Jourdaen Sanchez had been looking forward to putting on her graduation regalia and walking across the stage at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, cheered on by family and friends.

    Instead, Sanchez will join the University of Kansas School of Medicine class of 2020 on Saturday, May 16, in a virtual Zoom ceremony, where she will participate in a virtual hooding ceremony and recite the Hippocratic Oath with her classmates.

    “I am so happy and privileged to be graduating and becoming an MD, but it’s also bittersweet,” Sanchez says. “Ever since my white coat ceremony, which marked the beginning of my journey, I’ve been looking forward to graduation and having all of my friends and family in the audience.”

    If there is a silver lining to the situation, it’s that Sanchez’s sister, Hannah, was supposed to graduate from Notre Dame Law School on the same day, which initially meant her family would have had to split up to attend ceremonies in two states. Notre Dame is now hosting its virtual graduation ceremony on Sunday, May 17.

    “So she will get to watch me graduate,” says Sanchez, who will start her residency training in general surgery at the University of Kansas on July 1. “We’re planning to have dinner here at home. It will be a perfect way to celebrate.”

    Across the country, medical schools are modifying their graduation ceremonies for the approximately 20,000 graduates of the class of 2020. Of necessity, most of the ceremonies are being held online, but each school has worked hard to insert a mixture of tradition and personality into what is arguably one of the most meaningful days of a young physician’s career.

    Here’s how six schools are celebrating.

    Rush University President Sherine Gabriel, MD, presided over the conferring of degrees via video in an online commemorative flipbook
    Rush University President Sherine Gabriel, MD, presided over the conferring of degrees via video in an online commemorative flipbook.
    Courtesy: Rush University

    Rush Medical College of Rush University Medical Center – April 30

    As in the past, medical students and their Rush University peers could flip through a beautiful booklet commemorating graduation day — but this year they did so online. Starting at 9 a.m. CT on April 30, the 131 med school graduates could click on flipbook pages that offered videotaped speeches, well-wishes from faculty members, and even hyperlinks to students’ more personal pages. In addition, in the week leading up to commencement, the Rush commencement committee shot out emails to more than 10,000 staff, alumni, and others outlining how to send congratulations to graduates on the school’s social media platforms. “We wanted to reach as many stakeholders as possible so we could honor our students,” says Rush University Vice Provost for Student Affairs Gayle Ward, JD. “Nothing can replicate that moment when you are together with peers and loved ones under one roof, but our students understood that this is a difficult time.” Indeed, as Dino Rumoro, DO, MPH, acting dean of the medical college, wrote in his graduation remarks, “How you respond to this new disease will define your generation.”

    University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine – May 9

    The leaders of South Dakota’s only medical school delivered their commencement addresses on Saturday, May 9, from a makeshift broadcast studio in a wide hallway, while 67 graduates joined from home on Zoom and families watched through a livestream on YouTube. The staff wore graduation regalia, and while the graduates had no caps and gowns, the school had shipped them special medallions with their names and degrees engraved. “Times of crisis cause us to call upon our inner reserves and require us to demonstrate our character,” Dean Mary Nettleman, MD, said in an uplifting address, delivered from a cloth-draped table with a school banner as her backdrop. Then, as each student’s name was called, their pictures were projected on Zoom while Dawn Bragg, PhD, dean of medical student affairs, said something personal about each one — not just academic achievements, “but the things they did in their communities,” she says. What Bragg missed most was the noise of a commencement crowd: “I like to hear the families applauding.”

    University of Kansas School of Medicine – May 16 and 17

    The University of Kansas School of Medicine graduation will actually be a two-part affair. On Saturday, May 16, the 208 graduating medical students from the school’s three campuses will participate in a virtual MD recognition ceremony, during which they will hear from each of the campus deans as well as Executive Dean Akinlolu Ojo, MD, PhD, MBA. They’ll have a virtual hooding ceremony, recite the Hippocratic Oath, and then watch a slide presentation featuring each graduate, their awards, and where they’re headed for residency. The official conferring of the MD degree will take place the following day during the University of Kansas’s all-school virtual commencement ceremony. “Originally, we thought perhaps we would postpone the ceremony, do something in June or July. But more than 60% of our graduates are going out of state for residency, so we realized we shouldn’t wait,” says Mark Meyer, MD, senior associate dean for student affairs. Each student will be mailed their diploma, class photo, and five copies of the printed program. The school has also offered students three possibilities to meet for in-person events in the coming year, if public health guidelines allow: A social gathering in June for the 35% of students who are staying in Kansas; an event during the school’s alumni weekend in October; and an invitation to participate in next year’s hooding ceremony alongside the class of 2021. “Our medical students are resilient, adaptable individuals, and we are fortunate to be able to celebrate them,” Meyer says.

    Meharry Medical College – May 23

    The first medical school in the South for African Americans has held commencements under all sorts of circumstances since its founding in 1876, and its leaders won’t let a pandemic get in the way of sending off its graduates with a message of hope. “We want to make sure they understand that these unprecedented times are not the end of times,” says Dexter Samuels, PhD, senior vice president for student affairs. “This is their day, and we need to celebrate their success. We want to talk about the difference they’ll make in the world.” Meharry is finalizing logistics of its online commencement, which it expects to include about 200 students from its schools of medicine, dentistry, and graduate studies. The ceremony will feature a videotaped commencement address by Altha Stewart, MD, senior associate dean for community health engagement at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine, and comments about each student as their names are announced. “We’re proud of how they’ve handled this situation,” Samuels says. “They’re going to go on to serve our world and make it a better place.”

    University of California, Davis, School of Medicine – May 29

    University of California (UC), Davis, School of Medicine Dean Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, takes pride in the diversity of her medical school classes — so much so that she has invited members of the class of 2020 to recite the first line of the UC Davis Physician’s Oath in the language of their choice during the school’s virtual graduation ceremony on May 29. So far, students have signed up to recite that first line — “Now being admitted to the high calling of the physician, I solemnly pledge to consecrate my life to the care of the sick, the promotion of the health, and the service of humanity”  — in 13 languages, including Cantonese, Farsi, Korean, Mandarin, Navajo, Persian, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Russian, and Vietnamese. Students will then recite the entire oath together. In keeping with its well-received virtual Match Day ceremony, the event will be streamed on Facebook Live, with remarks from Brashear and UC Davis Chancellor Gary May and then a ceremony during which each student will offer a few words. “We are committed to making our commencement memorable,” says Brashear, who noted that most of the 114 graduating students will be staying in California and that many are planning to eventually deliver primary care to their communities. “Typically, these events are huge family affairs because many of our graduates — about 60% to 70% — are first-time college graduates. We want to make this special for them and their families and are excited for them to join medicine at this unprecedented time.”

    Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth – June 6

    At the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, students wanted their virtual graduation to remain highly traditional. So, when the 88 students and their families gather via the school’s website at noon ET on June 6, they will hear commencement speeches, a roll call of names, and the recitation of the Hippocratic Oath (all prerecorded). To re-create some of the usual pre-ceremony socializing, students can log on early to watch videos and slideshows from classmates reminiscing about their four years together. Administrators even sent out regalia for at-home hooding ceremonies, explains Associate Dean for Student Affairs Alison Holmes, MD, MPH. Holmes is impressed by how well students adapted to the changes. She, on the other hand, confesses to being a little heartbroken. “I love graduation. I love giving everyone a big hug and meeting their families. It’s really hard not to be able to say goodbye.” So, she says, she plans to slip into the students’ Zoom after-party to offer her farewells.