Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harvard University and Harvard Medical School held virtual graduation ceremonies to ensure the health and safety of the Harvard communities. In-person celebrations will take place at a later date.
“Our goal today is to get maximum joy out of doing this in a way that, while physically distanced, is still socially connected,” said Dean for Medical Education Edward Hundert during the Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine Class Day celebration on May 28.
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic upended the graduating class’ final semester at HMS and HSDM, when safety concerns prompted the University to send students home to finish the spring semester remotely, it did not stop the grads from achieving their dreams of becoming doctors and dentists.
“Our goal today is to get maximum joy out of doing this in a way that, while physically distanced, is still socially connected.” –Edward Hundert
Class co-moderator David Clossey said the Class of 2020 is “the first in the 238-year storied history of Harvard Medical School to attend graduation from their homes.”
Instead of the traditional gathering under a tent on the HMS Quad, the Class Day ceremony was streamed on HMS channels so that family and friends all over the world could celebrate the graduates and their achievements.
And just as in other years, Class Day speeches were delivered by HMS and HSDM deans and fellow graduating students. The highlight of this year’s event was an inspiring keynote address by astronaut, engineer, surgeon and alumnus Robert Satcher Jr., MD ’94.
“This is a special moment that is the culmination of years of hard work, focused sacrifice and vision,” said Satcher from his Houston office as he spoke seated next to a model of the space shuttle Atlantis, the craft on which he served as the crew’s medical doctor during an 11-day NASA mission in 2009.
Satcher explained that when an oxygen tank exploded on a previous NASA mission, the Apollo 13 flight in 1970, it was engineers who led the way, working with mission control and the crew on the imperiled craft to bring the astronauts safely back to earth.
Much like those engineers, he said, “we, as health care professionals, have a similar opportunity today to lead the country and the world to post-pandemic success by defining the alternatives that will allow public officials to make the correct choices and to lead discovery and innovation in finding a cure and better ways of preventing disease spread and, on an individual level, to care for those afflicted by coronavirus and, equally as important, to provide hope.”
“You can remake our health care system and remake the world.” –Robert Satcher Jr.
Quoting such figures as civil rights leader and minister Malcolm X and evangelist Billy Graham, Satcher spoke about how adversity has often been an impetus for change in the world.
He also discussed how health care inequities are rooted in racial bias. Satcher referenced his uncle, David Satcher, a former U.S. surgeon general who spoke at an HMS Class Day 20 years ago. The elder Satcher’s work to establish informed consent in clinical testing was spurred by the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis conducted by the United States Public Health Service in African American men during the mid-20th century.
Then, as now, Satcher said, African Americans have been disproportionately negatively impacted by racial bias in society and in health care.
“The [coronavirus] pandemic has also served as a spotlight on underlying deficiencies in our society, providing a truth serum of sorts to collective denials rooted in historical and institutionalized injustices,” Satcher said.
But he urged the graduates to never give up and to use their voices.
“As HMS, HSDM graduates,” he said, “you have earned this moment. Now, more than ever, you have the tools that are needed to make change. So, I implore you to be bold and have a vision that isn't clouded by cynicism or fear. You can remake our health care system and remake the world.”
The class by numbers
On this, the 232nd graduation for HMS and 151st for HSDM, 179 students received doctor of medicine degrees from HMS and 34 received doctor of dental medicine degrees from HSDM. Many of the MD graduates earned additional degrees, including 16 MBAs, 6 MPPs, 18 PhDs, and one each MEd, MBE, MPH and MS. One dental graduate also earned an AM from Harvard.
HMS graduates matched to residencies in fields related to primary care, emergency medicine, psychiatry, various surgery subspecialties, and other specialties. Dental school graduates will be going into oral and maxillofacial surgery, pediatric dentistry, endodontics and more. Graduates will begin their training, internship or residency programs in June and July.
Earlier in the day, 126 master’s degree graduates were celebrated. On the evening of May 27, graduates of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology held a celebration that can be viewed here. The HMS Division of Medical Sciences will hold a hooding ceremony for 2020 PhD graduates at a later date.
Rendezvous with destiny
“I am honored to now count you as colleagues,” said HMS Dean George Q. Daley, MD ’94, to the class as he conferred their degrees. “You have dedicated your lives to a career in service to others. Few times in history has this commitment held as much meaning as it does today.”
Hearkening back to previous generations of HMS and HSDM graduates, Daley wondered what those who faced other era-defining crises, such as the 1918 flu pandemic, World War II and the AIDS epidemic, would think about this class’ experiences.
“Throughout the 238-year history of our school, many generations have had a rendezvous with destiny,” said Daley, referring to the challenges this year’s graduates have faced because of the COVID-19 pandemic, citing how they worked to obtain and distribute personal protective equipment to frontline health care workers, volunteered in a multitude of capacities in hospitals and clinics and created a COVID-19 medical school curriculum that’s being used around the world.
“You, the Class of 2020, have matched [previous graduates] step for step, and I am certain that they would be proud that you are carrying on their legacy,” he said. “This is a historic moment in medicine—your very own rendezvous with destiny. It will shape the doctors, and the individuals, that you will become.”
“This is a historic moment in medicine—your very own rendezvous with destiny.” –George Q. Daley
In her Class Day remarks, Vicki Rosen, interim dean of HSDM, praised the graduates for their resiliency, determination and adaptability in completing their degree requirements in the face of the disruption to their final semester.
“Not only have you accomplished what many could not have, but you have done it with a measure of grace that is inspiring,” said Rosen.
“You will be the advocates and leaders we need to promote science, influence policy and champion compassionate and equitable care,” she said, noting the students’ dedication to learning and serving through long hours in the lab and clinic and through service projects focusing on oral health equity.
One member of the Class of 2020, Mark Herzog, who died in a rock-climbing accident in January, was remembered during the ceremony by his good friend and graduating classmate Andrew Foley. Herzog was completing an elective in rural primary care in New Zealand at the time and spending weekends exploring the country.
Foley said Herzog had “the mind of a motivated student doctor, heart of a rural health advocate and spirit of a blissful adventurer,” and he noted that to continue Herzog's legacy a memorial fund has been established to support travel and research in rural health equity for HMS students.
Living the dream
This year’s student speeches reflect their resiliency and commitment to service.
HMS graduate speaker Khin-Kyemon Aung praised the Class of 2020 for having the courage to question the status quo and do things differently. She remarked that although “we are now separated across state lines, time zones and even oceans,” she wanted to “celebrate what has stayed the same, what binds us together—which is a deep commitment to serve others, to care for, heal and comfort patients.”
On her very first day at HMS in August 2016, HMS graduate speaker Mugdha Joshi said she thought “about how I was living the dream, a shared dream of all the people who’d ever supported me, and literally generations of hard work all culminating in me being able to have this moment.”
Reflecting on the challenges the Class of 2020 has faced together, she said the next challenges the graduates face will be greater.
“But here at HMS, I found a faith in myself, and in each of you, that once we jump in we can figure it out. With gratitude, with confidence and with resilience,” Joshi said.
Surrounded by dental kitsch, including a framed illustration of a toothbrush , an anatomical model of a human mouth and an HSDM pennant, HSDM graduate speaker Ryan Lisann welcomed viewers to his apartment.
Lisann noted that even though a virtual Class Day ceremony wasn’t what the grads had hoped for, “I feel so fortunate to be able to connect virtually to celebrate this momentous occasion.”
He highlighted the unfortunate reality that vulnerable underresourced communities, already bearing the brunt of adverse health outcomes, have been devastated by the pandemic. He called on his fellow classmates and physicians “to work with experts in law, government, business and education to increase access to care, advocate for policy reform and mentor future doctors who will diversify our professions.”
Replacing each student’s traditional walk across the stage with a handshake and photo opp, there was a festive celebration of individual accomplishments.
As each student’s name was read, a slide was displayed that included their name, degree and any additional honors and graduate degrees they had earned while at HMS. Many slides included photos selected by the graduates, of their childhoods, of gatherings with family and friends and of favorite activities and pets. Others included groups of colleagues from their clinics, classes and labs from their time at the School.
Concluding the slide portion of the program, this year's Faculty Awards were announced. These awards recognize outstanding faculty, residents and staff at HMS and HSDM.
An oath and hope
The streaming celebration closed with the Class of 2020 graduates reading an oath that they wrote based on their shared goals and values. In this extraordinary time, their words brought home the collaborative nature of biomedicine and the nature of hope.
“We join our profession in a changing world, with challenges that ask more from each of us and as a collective whole. May our journeys be filled with hope. May we forever strive to uphold the values of our calling as we accompany those in need of healing, to leave our world better than we found it, and to long experience the meaning and joy of our service.”
Hundert and Daley both said they were happy to celebrate virtually with the graduates but look forward to celebrating with all of them in person at a future date.
“We’re all very grateful that Harvard University has promised that we will have an in-person set of Commencement events, including an in-person HMS/HSDM Class Day celebration, once it’s safe to do so,” said Hundert.