The Purpose of Medical School

HMS Class Day remarks highlight the privilege and joy of a caring profession  

Image: Steve Gilbert for HMS

Image: Steve Gilbert for HMS

Themes of service to the world and dedication to a life of meaning and purpose were echoed throughout the rainy and chilly Class Day ceremonies on May 25. Faculty and student speakers delivered their thoughts on what the medical professions represent to them, to their families and to humankind. Excerpts from their remarks appear below.

HMS Students

Aaron Lawrence Schwartz

Aaron Schwartz. Image: Steve Gilbert for HMS“It’s taken me eight years to get used to the idea of graduating from Harvard Medical School. Maybe it’s all the marble and columns. The majesty of this Quad is a reminder of what we know from our experiences here—that practicing medicine is a sacred privilege.

Read the entire speech here.



Colleen M. Farrell

Colleen Farrell. Image: Steve Gilbert for HMS

“When I was a third-year medical student, I scrubbed in on the surgery of a woman with ovarian cancer. The purpose of the surgery was to see whether her cancer had spread to other organs. The surgeon instructed me to put my hand on the patient's liver. As I ran my gloved hand over it, I felt hard knobs of cancer press against my fingertips. I realized that after the anesthesia wore off, the surgeon would have to tell her patient that the cancer had metastasized.



Read the entire speech here.


HSDM Student

Sara Tejani

Sara Tejani. Image: Steve Gilbert for HMS“I would like to begin by taking us back to our first moments here. Many of us described a feeling of imposter syndrome—how had we obtained admission to arguably the greatest university on earth? I remember feeling small in the grand presence of Harvard University. For me, as a five-foot immigrant scarf-donning Muslim woman, I felt inspired but also mildly overwhelmed. Over these past four years, after witnessing all that we have achieved together, those feelings have transformed.

Read the entire speech here.



R. Bruce Donoff, Dean of Harvard School of Dental Medicine

R. Bruce Donoff. Image: Steve Gilbert for HMS“Congratulations to you all and to all your loved ones. Welcome to George Daley, our new dean. This is a very special commencement as this year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of our dental school on July 17, 1867.

“I will remember the HSDM class of 2017 for your involvement in organized dentistry whether that is by being the number one student group in presenting papers at national meetings or in papers published. No small feat for one of the smallest dental schools in the nation. Your sincere deep passion for improving the lives of others, especially those with the greatest need, whether that was in community clinics, the Windsor Street Health Center at Cambridge Health Alliance or helping to establish a new dental school in Rwanda. I will remember your class because it was the last class that I taught Patient-Doctor I, the joy of my week as I witnessed neophyte doctors interview patients without much knowledge of their illnesses.

“Remember, we are privileged to take care of people. Treat them well, treat them kindly and treat them with respect. Above all, treat them all equally, with one high standard of care. Don’t allow missions of mercy, thousands of people lined up for free dental care periodically, to become the profession’s scar of oral health delivery. Don’t permit our growing elderly population’s oral health needs from being excluded from Medicare. Just so you know, one in five Americans older than 65 do not have a single real tooth left in their mouths, 2 million emergency room visits occurred because of dental issues, mostly pain, in 2016, at a cost of $1.6 billion, and 25 percent of Americans—81 million people—don’t have access to fluoridated water.

“Your achievements should make you very proud. Those who have helped you reach this day and those who have nurtured and sustained you share that pride. The entire HSDM community and I, feel no small measure of joy and pride in your accomplishments. We look forward to your futures with justifiably high hopes.

“Congratulations, Class of 2017. I hope your memories of HSDM and HMS will always remain a treasured part of who you are and who you become. Be the leaders you are in transforming our health care world, through science, policy and compassionate care.”

Edward M. Hundert, HMS Dean for Medical Education

Edward Hundert. Image: Steve Lipofsky for HMS“Well, class: you did it—give yourselves a hand! Now stand up, turn around, and give your parents and teachers a hand! 

“As you officially become physicians and dentists today, you at once assume the joyous privilege and the arduous responsibility to care for the health and welfare of those in need. I remember heading into internship feeling rather terrified by the thought that, the month before graduation, I was a med student, with a somewhat ambiguous role on the team; and the month after graduation, what I’d say in the hospital room would be echoed repeatedly through the extended family as “what mom’s doctor explained to us this this afternoon about where things stand.” I shared this anxiety with one of my mentors, and wasn’t especially reassured when she responded, ‘You know, Ed, you’re not alone—the truth is, we’re all in way over our heads most of the time when we care for sick and dying people.’

“At this podium some years ago, one of the student speakers memorably said, ‘You enter HMS answering most questions: I don’t know. And then, after learning from the experts for four years, you leave answering most questions: We don’t know!’

“Today, you join the ‘we’ who don’t know—the we who need to rely on others to help us figure it out on behalf of our patients—and the we who will do the research so that more can be known, so that more can be done. But—and this is my main message—always remember that even when you can’t figure out how to fix every one of your patient’s problems, what you can do is give them your full attention and show them how much you care. In some philosophies, they say that giving someone your full attention is the highest form of love—and I’m convinced it’s the active ingredient in the care that we provide. We think of Francis Weld Peabody’s observation that “the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”

“Let me again congratulate all the families, teachers, friends and others who have joined to share in this great occasion. But most of all, congratulations to you, our students who inspire me every day, now our graduates joining our wonderful fellowship of HMS alumni—we alumni have a lot of fun together, too, as I hope you’ll discover! I wish you the very best of luck, health and fulfillment in all you do. Please always remember the immortal words of Margaret Mead, who said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’  Class of 2017: you are that group of thoughtful, committed people who, by reaching out, turning and helping all of us do better, will transform the lives of your patients and their families, and will transform American medicine.”

Keynote Speaker, George Q. Daley, Dean of HMS

Dean Daley offers guidance for a lifetime of learning, leadership and service. Read the full speech here.