On May 18, the 113 graduates of the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) MD Class of 2020 were celebrated in an hour-long virtual Commencement ceremony, an event that reflected tremendous collaboration among YSM students, faculty, and staff. The graduates included 16 students who received MD-PhD degrees, 11 students receiving joint master’s of health sciences degrees, four receiving joint master’s of business administration degrees, and one student receiving a Certificate in Global Medicine. The ceremony was the inaugural YSM Commencement for Dean Nancy J. Brown, MD, who bookended the celebratory event with welcoming and closing remarks.
As the reality of social distancing became clear this spring, Class of 2020 Co-presidents Tess O’Meara and Arash Fereydooni were “determined to come up with creative ways to foster a strong sense of community among peers and faculty and to raise class morale during these final moments of our medical school experience.”
Nancy Angoff, MD ‘90, MPH ‘81, MEd, associate dean of student affairs, is grateful to O’Meara and Fereydooni for listening to many views, and creatively crafting this Commencement ceremony. “I think this class created a memorable Commencement and, unlike other classes before them, will have a record of it for the rest of their lives. In its own way, it will be especially meaningful, and they will be able to reflect back in ways others could not. They made the most out of the situation,” Angoff notes.
The virtual ceremony, which followed the University-wide ceremony, enabled graduates’ families and friends to share in marking this important milestone.
Angoff points to the hard work of Jill Aulenti, director of student programs at YSM, for energetically addressing the many challenges of coordinating a virtual Commencement. Aulenti, in turn, praises Paul Perry, assistant manager, classroom technology & event services, medical campus, as “truly a master at putting this together, making sure it all worked beautifully.”
The Yale Physicians Oath
A highlight of the virtual Ceremony was the annual reading of the Yale Physicians Oath. Years ago, YSM started having each class write their own oath, largely so that the students must wrestle with the ideas they want to include, making it more meaningful. A moment of silence is always reserved at the end, to allow for students’ individual thoughts.
After the oath was written, the class Co-presidents conceived of the idea to have classmates submit a video clip of themselves stating a line from the oath, which then could be compiled into a montage. They worked with Noah Golden and Andrew Osborne from the YSM Office of Communications to create a moving three-minute video of the oath reading, which was shared for the first time at the ceremony.
Angoff believes “this video will become the paradigm for oath taking going forward.” Contrasting it with the usual practice of graduates reading the oath in unison at an in-person commencement, Angoff adds, “you understand the words in a way that has never been evident before.”
COVID-19 not only impacted the format of the ceremony, but the content. In her remarks, Brown stated “your class presidents have asked me to address your graduation in the context of the extraordinary times in which we find ourselves. And so, I would like to reflect on the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic for all physicians, but for you in particular as graduates.”
She then continued with a thoughtful analysis of the need to view the COVID-19 pandemic in historical context, and a discussion of how the COVID-19 epidemic “reminds us that as physicians, we must often resolve conflicts among the commitments we have made to our patients, to our families, and to ourselves,” “that we practice medicine within a community,” “that attention to detail matters in medicine,” and “the importance of discovery and innovation in medicine.”
California Surgeon General’s Address
The students chose Nadine Burke Harris, MD, the inaugural Surgeon General of California, to give the Commencement Address, reflecting their strong commitment to advancing health equity. Burke Harris is a pediatrician by training, whose career has focused on the social determinants of health in pediatrics, specifically how, as she described, “cumulative adversity particularly during the critical and sensitive developmental periods of childhood actually changes biology” and significantly affects health outcomes throughout life.
Burke Harris began her remarks acknowledging the students’ being unable to celebrate their graduation together with family and friends. She continued: “At the same time, never has the power of the oath we take been more clear. It’s not the cap and gown that makes you a doctor, it’s the commitment to safeguarding the health and wellbeing of others that gets you up every single day to go to work despite the risk that you face. This moment for doctors is massive. This is your time. And whether you are going into the lab or practicing clinical care, we are all being called to the front line.”
She spoke passionately about the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and the role the graduates can play as physicians to both help individuals and drive systemic change.
“When we see that Black and Brown people are dying from COVID-19 at twice the rate of other populations, how can we not only heal the COVID-19 caused by the novel Coronavirus, but also the disparate death rates caused by the legacy of historically-routed inequities that translate into significant day-to-day differences in lived experiences that get embedded in our brains and bodies. How can you extend the power and the privilege of the education that you just received, to heal not only the illness, but injustice? To do that, we’ll need to come together like never before. We’ll need not just the passion, but partnership and protocols. Not just enthusiasm, but evidence and infrastructure. That’s how we’ll transform care and save lives. That’s how we not only beat the odds, but change the odds.”
She also reminded the graduates, “you cannot sustainably care for others if you don’t first practice self-care emotionally, physically, and spiritually.”
In creating the ceremony, the students felt it was important to maintain the tradition of the YSM Registrar, Terri Tolson, reading the name of each graduating student. And each student had been asked to submit the photo they wanted displayed on the video screen when their name was read. Several students posed with their kids, emulating the common practice of graduates bringing children on stage when they receive their diploma.
While the recipients of the faculty awards traditionally announced at Commencement could not be honored in person, their images were displayed as their awards were announced.
Beyond the class oath, several students had roles in the ceremony. This included the Class co-presidents presenting awards and the class gifts, and Sonia Taneja and Ramsey Yusuf delivering a moving, and funny, invocation. Another highlight was Christopher Chow-Parmer, ’21, Ryan Handoko ’20, Kristina Marie Klara ’20, Raman Nelakanti ’23, Caitlin Parmer-Chow ’20, and Ilana Usiskin ’20 performing “In My Life” by The Beatles.
O’Meara notes that "while there is something unique and special about donning the graduation robes and green velvet medical hoods and feeling the energy and love from your medical and non-medical families, the pandemic has re-focused us on why we went into medicine in the first place and given us a great sense of responsibility for our residency years ahead. I think many of us feel proud to be joining the health care workers who have sacrificed so much. In a way, these responsibilities and sacrifices have brought our community closer together and given our MD’s a new sense of purpose. “
The Charles W. Bohmfalk Prizes. Established in 1989 under the terms of the Alice Bohmfalk Charitable Trust. Prestigious teaching prizes are awarded annually to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the teaching program, one in the basic sciences and one in the clinical sciences, as judged by the faculty and students.
Basic Science: Lloyd G. Cantley, MD Clinical Science: Cassius Iyad Ochoa Chaar, MD, MS
The Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award Supported by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation. Established in 1998 to honor the faculty member who demonstrates the highest standard of compassion and sensitivity in his or her interactions with patients.
Aniyizhai Annamalai, MBBS, MD
The Leah M. Lowenstein Award. Presented annually by the Office for Women in Medicine to a faculty member who is the model of a medical educator whose humane teaching reaches and influences all students regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic background. These are the traits espoused by the late Leah Lowenstein, a medical educator and first female dean of a co-educational medical school.
Anna Reisman, MD
The Alvan R. Feinstein Award. Presented to a Yale School of Medicine faculty member chosen as the outstanding teacher of the year of clinical skills by a committee of chairs of the clinical departments, associate chairs, and students.
Rachel Liu, MBBCh
The Francis Gilman Blake Award. Established in 1952 by Nu Sigma Nu. Endowed by Dr. Robert C. Kirk, B.S. Yale 1930s, as a memorial to his twin brother, Dr. Gilman Kirk, B.S. Yale 1930s. Awarded annually to that member of the faculty of the School of Medicine designated by the senior class as the most outstanding teacher of the medical sciences.
Andre N. Sofair, MD, MPH
The Betsy Winters House Staff Award. Presented annually to that member of the House Staff of the Yale-New Haven Medical Center, designated by the graduating class, who has made the most significant contribution to the education of medical students.
Sameer Khan, MD and Benjamin Young, MD