Always Be a Student

The value of an open mind, limitless curiosity, and desire to alleviate suffering

Dean Daley, wearing academic regalia, speaking in Gordon Hall

These Class Day remarks by HMS Dean George Q. Daley, were prerecorded and presented at the 2021 Class Day virtual ceremony on May 27.

Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine Class of 2021, it is my pleasure to celebrate with you and your families and loved ones today, and my privilege to congratulate you on becoming Harvard’s newest doctors and dentists.

Like all of you, I wish we were celebrating together in person. I wish we could be gathered under the tent on the majestic Harvard Medical School Quadrangle, with friends, family, and colleagues. With the successful rollout of vaccinations, I think we can all see a future when we will indeed gather again together. But in the meantime, I hope that you, our graduates, are safe and surrounded by your family and friends, enjoying a private celebration.

Today marks the culmination of your years of hard work, your sacrifices, and your profound commitment to the calling of medicine. Today is the end of your many years as a student, and the beginning of your many years as a doctor dedicated to serving and caring for others.

Read more about HMS/HSDM Class Day here

In truth, however, all of us in this noble profession, you, your teachers, your attending physicians, your deans, all of us who have chosen medicine as our life’s calling, will forever be students.

Medicine is constantly evolving and always unpredictable. Whatever your chosen specialty or discipline, every day will bring new questions, new unknowns, and new events that will challenge your knowledge and confidence.

Over the past year, this truth has never been more apparent.

Class of 2021, you have witnessed an epoch-defining public health crisis. Decades from now, you will think back on this past year and reflect on those experiences. I hope those reflections include a recognition of how what we have learned in this past year has placed all of you on a path to make the world a safer and more just place. COVID-19 has changed the world, but today you stand as the newest foot soldiers in a war that is much more than a battle against a single virus.

Over the past year, you have witnessed how the inadequacies and deep frailties of our health care system have been laid bare. If there was ever a notion that we as doctors serve best when we diagnose and treat disease, we can safely put that quaint notion to rest.

To truly care for our patients, we must be activists. We must be advocates. We must be agents for change, whether by encouraging adherence to public health measures, combating vaccine hesitancy, or fighting to repair a health care system riddled with deep disparities for people of color— a system that tolerates inequities, leaving millions unprotected, or poorly protected, from what should be every individual’s fundamental right to health care.

Medicine has always been a demanding profession, and today it is as challenging a profession as perhaps it has ever been. But when I look at you, Class of 2021, I am inspired, and I am truly optimistic for our future.

Over the past year, I’ve witnessed heroism in medicine, from physicians working tirelessly on the frontlines, sometimes outside their areas of specialty, recalling skills from their earliest days of training, to nurses serving as intensely direct caregivers, at personal risk, and serving as proxies for family members who weren’t allowed to enter an ICU. From the support staff maintaining our medical facilities, to the scientists uniting to elevate the priorities of the pandemic over their individual goals.

You, Class of 2021, were right there with them.

You helped found a nationwide movement to aid frontline health care workers. You formed rapid response teams to support and inform at-risk populations. You mobilized voters and promoted civic engagement. You developed new approaches to COVID-19 screening for the most vulnerable. And you created a COVID-19 curriculum that has been adopted at medical schools and by health care professionals in more than 100 countries on six continents.

All the while, you excelled at your studies, you published research breakthroughs, you invented new technologies, and you fought for social justice … including for your DACA classmates, some of whom are graduating with you today.

Above all, you never wavered—you wanted to be in the fray. Confronted by this once-in-a-century pandemic that altered every aspect of your education and personal lives, you demonstrated strength, empathy, resilience, and perseverance. 

You showed your profound compassion for your patients, your classmates, and your fellow human beings. You never let go of that thirst for knowledge and the desire to effect change that brought you to Harvard Medical School in the first place.

As doctors, we will never possess all the knowledge and expertise we need. But what ultimately allows us to succeed, what allows our profession to carry the well-justified honor, respect, and trust of the communities we care for, are the very traits you have so clearly demonstrated.

If you care for your patients with compassion, sensitivity, and respect, if you embrace the truth that you are forever a student, with an open mind, limitless curiosity, and relentless desire to use your skills and knowledge to alleviate suffering, to improve people’s lives, and to make the world better, you will be great doctors, no matter the circumstance, no matter the events that transpire.

I want to thank you for all that you have done, and will do, in service to Harvard Medical School and to the world. 

I am honored to now call you my colleagues. On behalf of your teachers, mentors, and the alumni community that you now join, I want to say again: Congratulations! We can’t wait to see what you accomplish next!