Chasing Big Dreams

“Your work has only just begun,” HMS Dean George Q. Daley tells new graduates

George Daley
HMS Dean George Q. Daley, Image: Steve Lipofsky for HMS

Colleagues, friends and family, it is truly exciting to be here today with all of you. As dean, I have the great privilege of celebrating a major milestone in the careers of our outstanding students—the Class of 2019.

Today you are becoming doctors. Whether physician or dentist, you are joining a profession that has rich traditions and has earned well justified honor and respect. You have worked hard to achieve your degrees and today you pledge yourselves to a career in service to others, a career that calls upon you to strive on behalf of your patients to alleviate suffering and to enhance health and well being for all. You’ve made it. We are so proud of you. I am honored to congratulate the Class of 2019.

Read more about HMS/HSDM Commencement and Class Day.

You have no doubt waited a very long time to be called “doctor.” For some of you, perhaps even most of your life. Can you recall when you first set your sights on becoming a doctor?

Sometimes, we need to be reminded of what it means to dream. Just last week, I received an email from Lainey Kucera, a 12-year-old sixth grader who attends the Killdeer Elementary School, some 22 miles away from her home in Halliday, North Dakota, population 197.

Lainey told me about her father, who works in the oil fields, and her mother, who works at a bank and volunteers as an EMT.

Lainey told me about her teacher, Mrs. Helfrich, who spoke to her class recently about the importance of preparing for college, a conversation that prompted Lainey to set her sights on coming to Harvard to become a doctor. Lainey is thinking of specializing in pediatric or cardiovascular surgery, programs where, she duly noted, Harvard ranks very high.

Lainey also said that her current babysitting job and doing, “lots and lots of chores,” aren’t enough to pay for tuition, so she plans to work as a teller at her mother’s bank, and she hopes to earn scholarships.

I was moved and inspired by Lainey’s story. I wrote back to her and said that achieving excellence through education could change her life.

Class of 2019, at some point in your lives, whether in sixth grade or much later, you likely encountered your own Mrs. Helfrich. You, too, were encouraged by a mentor and developed a yearning around which your dreams of becoming a doctor began to crystallize.

Like Lainey, you fretted over grades and extracurricular activities, agonized over test scores. The vast majority of you wondered whether you could shoulder the financial burden of your education.

Above all, you dedicated yourself to learning. You relished intellectual challenge. You worked hard and earned your place here through long hours of studying, through sacrifice and sheer determination.

You arrived at Harvard Medical School as the very best of the very best. And yet, once here, we challenged you to work even harder.

You devoted yourself to your studies and you pledged to live up to the expectations of your mentors and to serve your patients. You created new knowledge through research. You worked in clinics here in Boston and around the world. You saved lives. For your many achievements you have received well deserved accolades, including one among you who will graduate summa cum laude, becoming only the 19th student and fourth woman ever to have earned this distinction in the 237-year history of Harvard Medical School.

Class of 2019, you changed Harvard Medical School.

You founded the Racial Justice Coalition. You staged die-ins. (We died with you.) You marched for science and for women, and we marched with you. You marched for your DACA classmates, one of whom is here graduating with you today. You used your platform here at Harvard Medical School to focus the eyes of the nation on important causes, not for your own gain but because it was simply the right thing to do.

You are trailblazers. As the first class to graduate from the Pathways curriculum, you hold a special place in the history of our school. You even led critical components of our reaccreditation, including two student surveys that garnered an unheard of 98 percent participation rate. I’m not sure how you did that but I know better than to be surprised by what you can achieve.

I hope you never lose the spirit that compelled you to become a doctor. Take a moment, right now, to think back to that time, years ago, when you were Lainey Kucera, with big dreams and the drive to chase after them. Maybe even some of you wrote a letter to the then Dean of Harvard Medical School.

Class of 2019, you are leaving Harvard Medical School a much better place than it was when you arrived. Harvard hasn't made you, you have made Harvard. But your work has only just begun.

You are graduating at fragile time in our society. Among the many concerns we collectively face is a growing mistrust of expertise, a metastasizing notion that gut feelings somehow carry as much, or more weight, than evidence and data.

There are few settings in which people yearn for expertise and expect evidence-based decision-making more than in health care. Distrust of expertise fades when patients need the skills of a doctor.

Unfortunately, almost every day, we hear stories in the media of individuals who profit by taking advantage of privilege or gaming the institutions and systems we place our trust in.

You, the class of 2019, are the antidote to such cynicism.

More than ever, we need leaders who can guide us with insight, wisdom and compassion. I am certain that you are those leaders, not by choice or by ambition, but by the sheer power of your competence and your commitment to serving others.

In medicine, nothing can substitute for hard work and dedication. The standards are too high, the tasks too arduous, the responsibilities too great and meaningful. “Fake it ‘til you make it” doesn't make it in medicine.

High standards of excellence and achievement—competence—not bravado and bloviation, make medicine one of the most respected professions, and one of the few that can be considered a calling.

As you leave Harvard, and carry the privilege of being a doctor, patients will depend upon you to bring your expertise and your compassion to serve their needs. I am confident that you will continue to earn their trust, just as you have earned your degrees here today.

You’ve made your mark on Harvard. Now, it’s time for you to make your mark upon the world.

So, once again, to the Class of 2019, congratulations. We are so proud of you.

And finally, before I depart this stage, I want to give a special recognition to my colleague, Dr. Bruce Donoff, who later this year will be stepping down after 28 years of distinguished leadership of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.

Dean Donoff has been a visionary who has advanced the cause of integrating oral health and medicine, and through his training of generations of Harvard students he leaves a profound legacy in the field of dental medicine. Thank you Dean Donoff.