May 15, 2020

Not on stage, but instead on screens, U-M medical students graduate virtually

Honored speaker tells Class of 2020: “As physicians, we are truly, truly blessed; there is no other profession like it”

UMMS Medical School commencement

It is a rite of passage into their profession, but for 173 University of Michigan medical students, this year’s commencement ceremony was different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Instead of convening at Hill Auditorium to receive their diplomas and officially become doctors, members of the graduating Class of 2020 gathered with loved ones around their mobile phones, monitors, laptops and screens to participate in a virtual ceremony.

The festivities included remarks from University of Michigan Regent Shauna Ryder Diggs, M.D.; President Mark S. Schlissel, M.D., Ph.D.; Interim Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Susan M. Collins, Ph.D.; the honored speaker, Regina Benjamin, M.D., the 18th surgeon general of the United States; student speaker Josh Kurtz; and William Peterson, M.D., a faculty member chosen by the class as the Senior Award recipient. In addition, University and Medical School leadership guided graduates through many of the traditional segments of the ceremony, including an official reading of each student’s name, and recitation of the Hippocratic Oath.

“There’s really never been a more important time to be a physician,” Schlissel said. “Society needs you: bright, hardworking, idealistic and energetic people who live to serve.”

Benjamin discussed the importance of honoring the trust and respect that comes with being a member of the medical profession.

“As physicians, people will trust and respect you. You will be looked up to as a leader in your hospitals, in your community, by your families, by your little brothers and sisters, your cousins, and by your neighbors. As physicians, we are truly, truly blessed; there is no other profession like it,” she said.

“Your hands are often the first hands that a baby will feel when it enters this world. And, your hands may very well be the last hands that an elderly person feels when they leave this earth.”

Marschall S. Runge, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the Medical School, executive vice president for medical affairs, and CEO of Michigan Medicine, welcomed the Class of 2020 on a day he said they will remember for the rest of their lives.

“Today, you officially enter the profession of medicine, and the family of Michigan alumni,” Runge said. “As much as you have learned in the past four years, during your residencies you will learn more — much, much more. You will gain a new appreciation for what it really means to be the decision-maker in precarious clinical situations. Perhaps most important of all, you will learn how important your relationship is with your patients.”

The ceremony was streamed, and also is archived, on the Michigan Medicine YouTube channel. A special Commencement 2020 website allowed graduates, families, friends, faculty, staff, and fellow learners to post their messages of thanks, congratulations and well wishes. Community members also shared messages on their Twitter and public Instagram accounts by using the hashtag #GoBlueMD.

Carol R. Bradford, M.D., executive vice dean for academic affairs and chief academic officer for Michigan Medicine, praised the graduates on the day many of them have dreamed of since they were young.

“In many respects, the current health crisis has shined a spotlight on you. You learned to practice medicine during a time when your new profession has changed dramatically — how we treat our patients and families will never again be the same. Now, you leave as proud graduates, confident in your role as change agents and leaders in health care,” Bradford said. “Although your final year has not ended as you may have hoped, it has provided you with a grand stage to show that the future of health care is in the very best of hands.”

Senior Associate Dean for Education and Global Initiatives Joseph C. Kolars, M.D., presented the award recipients for the Class of 2020, and Associate Dean for Medical Student Education Rajesh S. Mangrulkar, M.D., read each of the students’ names, as he would if they were crossing the stage at Hill to receive their diplomas.

“Dean Runge, I give you the Class of 2020,” Mangrulkar concluded.

Kurtz, who was selected by his peers to speak on behalf of the Class of 2020, said the graduates will determine how their futures unfold.

“Over the next few years, we will be reminded over and over about how burned out and overworked we are. And yes there are many very real cultural and institutional factors that contribute to this reality for clinicians,” Kurtz said. “Regardless, during our residency training and throughout our careers we, Class of 2020, will have an important choice to make every single day. Will we succumb to this expectation of negativity and maintain the status quo, or can we instead flip the script and leverage what we have learned to make positive change.

“Having had the privilege of getting to know all of you over the past four years, I am deeply confident in our answers.”