By: Susan Reich
Inspired by a world-class faculty. Passionate about the advancement of medicine. Dedicated to the social mission of high-quality health care for all. On May 6 and 7, the 326 medical students in our Class of 2016 joined the “noblest profession” at the College of Medicine’s 134th commencement ceremonies in Chicago, Peoria, Rockford and Urbana. Across the state, the members of the largest and most diverse medical school class in the nation collected their diplomas, celebrated their achievements, expressed their gratitude and contemplated the road ahead.
THEY CAME TO STUDY AT THE COLLEGE OF MEDICINE FROM ALL OVER THE STATE, THE COUNTRY AND THE WORLD, traveling to the University of Illinois’ four campuses from suburbs, cities and rural villages. They hailed from hometowns as familiar as Naperville and Decatur and as far-flung as Batibo, Cameroon; Santiago, Chile; Bacau, Romania; and Moscow, Russia.
Their dreams were as diverse as their origins. To find new ways to eradicate cancer. To study the molecular basis of disease. To reduce health disparities in low-income communities. To enhance health and well-being around the world through global health initiatives.
Their aspirations were lofty, but their grit, talent and dedication matched their medical ambitions. By May 2016, 188 members of the Class of 2016 had completed their MD degrees in Chicago, 55 in Peoria, 53 in Rockford and 30 in Urbana. Graduating alongside them were 37 Doctor of Philosophy degree candidates in the areas of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, Microbiology and Immunology, Pathology and Physiology and Biophysics and 30 Master of Science Degree candidates in the areas of Business (MD/MBA Program), Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, Clinical and Translational Sciences, Patient Safety Leadership, Physiology and Biophysics, Public Health and Surgery.
As a group, they could not have been more different. Yet their emotions on commencement day were strikingly similar. Jubilation…relief… and, oddly enough, an almost universal feeling of disbelief. After pushing themselves to the limit for years while sacrificing sleep and social lives in their single-minded pursuit of medical knowledge, few could fully comprehend that this day had finally come.
“I am so excited and happy, but it’s overwhelming to finally arrive at this moment,” admitted Alejandra Sacasa, MD ’16, who will be moving back to her home state of New York for a pediatrics residency at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine-Cohen Children’s Hospital. “One of the highlights of my time at UIC was being a part of the Urban Medicine Program. My group was involved with the Young Doctors Club and I loved being able to teach young kids in the Lawndale community about health sciences and careers in the health professions. I’m very interested in working with underserved children and this program reinforced that interest.”
“I’m elated,” added Javier Herrera MD ’16, a Chicago-area resident who will be continuing his medical training at UIC in the College of Medicine’s emergency medicine residency program. “It’s been a long, hard road. Four years ago, I couldn’t picture this day. Yet, before I knew it, it was here. I’m just trying to take it all in.”
Herrera was inspired to specialize in emergency medicine by the advisor for the College’s Emergency Medicine Interest Group, who invited him to one of the group’s get-togethers. “To be honest, I showed up for the free food,” he admitted with a chuckle. “But, by the time that meeting was over, I was hooked. Dr. Del Rios in the Emergency Medicine Department was a great mentor to me. She was a great teacher, and also very dedicated to her field and to her research. It’s easy to get burned out in medical school, but when you are around people who are passionate about what they do, you tend to emulate them.”
“It’s hard to believe that these four years have passed in a flash,” marveled David Marino, MD ’16, a Connecticut native who will be relocating to Hawaii to pursue a residency in psychiatry at the Tripler Army Base in Honolulu. “Big things are happening and the College of Medicine at Chicago has prepared me well for the challenges ahead.”
The mood at the UIC Pavilion on Friday, June 6, was a kaleidoscope of joy, exhaustion and exhilaration as College of Medicine Dean Dimitri T. Azar, MD, MBA, kicked off the commencement celebration in Chicago.
“Today marks the beginning of your careers as graduates of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, one of the premier medical schools in the nation,” Dean Azar told the graduates. “This is a special day and a proud achievement! Soon, you will begin your careers as physicians or biomedical scientists. Your careers will take you into challenging residencies or demanding postgraduate programs, and I am confident that the foundation in science, medicine and service to patients that you have received at this college has prepared you for your continued, future success.
“As your careers advance, you will continue to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge, promoting our tradition of lifetime learning, which continues to be a cornerstone of the educational mission of our college. Not only will you excel in your chosen field of specialization, but you will also assume leadership positions and take great pleasure in mastering new skills, applying novel ideas and solving complex clinical and research problems. For those of you who are graduating with a doctoral degree in medicine, you will discover that becoming a physician means committing to a lifetime of service and inquiry, initially in your residency and fellowship and later in your practice.”
He paused and gazed out at the seated graduates clad in their caps and gowns. “It is my sincere hope that you will forever apply what you have experienced as students at the College of Medicine: passion in our pursuits, compassion for and dedicated service to your patients and excellence in every aspect of your lives. Congratulations and best wishes for your continued success!”
One of the day’s highlights was the commencement address by Dr. Robert Folberg, a leader in medicine who had served as head of pathology and as a professor of pathology and ophthalmology and visual science at the College of Medicine at Chicago from 2000 to 2008 and deputy director of the University of Illinois Cancer Center from 2003 to 2005.
“I am grateful to be a part of this milestone event in your lives,” Dr. Folberg told the graduates. “It seems to me that members of the medical profession should practice expressing gratitude as often as possible. After all, gratitude may be an effective antidote to arrogance and who would want to be under the care of an arrogant physician? I confess that I need to say ‘thank you’ often to protect myself from the delusion that I might actually know as much as others think I may know. I need to realize quite often in the practice of medicine that I have reached the limits of my knowledge and ask for help. And, whenever someone helps me, and I say ‘thank you,’ I realize how dependent I am on my colleagues in the service of my patients.
“You, yourselves, may feel grateful for just having reached this day,” he added. “There is significant accomplishment in being accepted to medical school, making it past the stress of critical examinations and the intensity of the clinical years. With this comes the realization that no one is entirely self-made. Everyone has been helped along the way to achievement. I hope that you make time to express gratitude to those who helped you your friends and your family, your mentors and your teachers.”
Dr. Folberg’s message about gratitude also included a posthumous tribute to UIC medical student Talia Minor, who succumbed to cancer while completing her medical studies. In one of Commencement 2016’s most heartwrenching moments, Minor’s father, Dr. Jorge Minor, and stepfather, Dr. Ajibola Ayeni, accepted Talia’s hood on her behalf at the College of Medicine’s special hooding ceremony earlier in the day.
“There is no escaping a touch of sadness today as you realize that there is a UIC medical student who cannot be here to share in the celebration of graduation,” he reflected. “Memories are very powerful bonds to those who have been on loan to us through their short lives. I trust that you are grateful for the memories of Talia and may your classmate’s memory always inspire you.”
He then posed a question to the graduates.
“Did you know that we are grateful to you? We are grateful for what you have learned and the remarkable people that you have become. We are grateful to those of you who will extend our knowledge by becoming scientists and physician-scientists, and we are equally grateful to you for aspiring to practice psychiatry in a Latino neighborhood, for intending to deliver primary care in rural Texas, for engaging in a global health initiative, for whatever you choose to do, whatever is your path in medicine. It is all important work.”
Class President Karen Tye also touched on the topic of gratitude in her commencement address.
“Family and friends: You are the key players in the stories that first inspired us to pursue medicine. Your support and love has enabled us to care so well for others….Thank you for reminding us why we started this process in the first place… and that, even though we have spent the last four years learning how to speak in medical terminology to communicate with our colleagues, we still need to remember the other languages of body movement, tone and basic English with each other and that ‘diaphoresis,’ for example, isn’t how everyone says they’re sweating! For our patients’ and our own sakes, thank you for keeping us humble and human.”
On behalf of the Class of 2016, Tye also thanked the College of Medicine’s faculty and staff.
“Thank you for always being our strongest advocates and for teaching us balance,” she concluded. “Balance between home and work, balance between knowing everything that we can possibly do for our patients and knowing when doing ‘everything’ might be too much. Balance between finding humor to lighten the gravity of our daily work and becoming callous or jaded….We’re all leaving with a set of tools to alleviate the pain, anxiety and suffering of others a set of tools that each of you has played a role in providing. So, forever, thank you. And to the Class of 2016, it’s been an honor to be your class president. Thank you, and congratulations everyone. WE DID IT!!!”
The next day, as the graduation festivities commenced in Peoria, Rockford and Urbana, Osarhiemen Abieyuwa Omwanghe, MD ’16 (Peoria), was already focused on the future.
“Medical school has been a joy ride for the most part and, as tough and time consuming as it was, I can honestly say that I learned so much from all of the people I met and the unique experiences I encountered along the way,” said Omwanghe. “I realize that each moment was a teaching point and I embraced all of my experiences openly and willingly. Time to continue this joy ride as I embark on this new journey called ‘residency.’ I'm excited to get started!”
But perhaps it was Chelsea Fu, MD ’16 (Urbana)—whose father made the 20-hour trip from Hangzhou, China, to watch his daughter become a doctor who summed up the sentiments of the Class of 2016 the most poignantly.
“Graduation has been the bittersweet event that we have all been looking forward to,” she mused. “Yet the realization that the family we have formed over the last four years is about to be disbanded has caused some melancholy and anxiety…. As we recited our Physician’s Oath today, I was filled with a sense of pride and humbled by the enormous responsibility that the two letters MD carry. Moving forward, I am excited to see my amazing class, with some of the most brilliant, empathetic and genuinely caring people I have ever known, make great contributions not only to the field of medicine, but to science and humanity. I hope we will all keep our passion for practicing medicine and stay true to our shared Oath in the coming decades of our careers.”