The 282 men and women who make up the graduating medical degree Class of 2021 are officially doctors, an honor bestowed on them at Wayne State University’s first in-person commencement since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than a year ago.
The 153rd commencement and hooding ceremony was held June 8 in the atrium of Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. Attendance was limited to graduates and speakers, adhering closely to COVID-19-related regulations and guidance provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Association of American Medical Colleges. More than 500 family members, friends, faculty and staff celebrated safely, watching the livestream of the event at med.wayne.edu/commencement.
School of Medicine Dean Mark E. Schweitzer, M.D., was among those speaking in person. He congratulated the doctors, comparing their new degree to a pathway that could change the world. “You've been given a gift. A gift to provide health to people. You can go home every night and think that you have done righteous work because you have, but I want you to do more than that. You’re Wayne State Warriors. You are leaders, and I want you to change society. For 153 years, Wayne State graduates have changed society, and you will be no different. You will be better because you lived through and learned through this pandemic,” he said.
The in-person celebration is an indication of further improving conditions that may soon allow a return to on-campus conditions, but the joyous occasion also provided moments of solemnity. The Class of 2021 holds the distinction of completing its entire fourth and final year of medical school during a pandemic, a reminder that these new doctors have not only been tested by the rigors of medical education, they have been forged as physicians by a pandemic that catapulted them to the front lines through in-person volunteer opportunities and clinical rotations.
“As you transitioned into your final year as a physician in training, you were confronted with an invisible intruder that threatened to derail your remaining preparation for practice, your transition to residency, and even the very lives of you and your loved ones,” said event emcee and Associate Dean of Students and Career Development Margit Chadwell, M.D. ’94. “During this last year, your noble response to accepting and adapting to the realities of the COVID surge here in Detroit, your service to this community and your patience was truly commendable, and I have often bragged about this class to others and colleagues in different institutions. Throughout this historic year, you modeled resilience, flexibility, compassion, service, aptitude and ingenuity. The isolation of the pandemic, rather than dividing, united us to be truly Warrior Strong.”
Graduating senior Yousif Jajo, M.D., whose physician father died of the virus, lighted a candle that burned for the rest of the ceremony. Then Eric Ayers, M.D., a Detroit-based frontline physician and associate professor of Internal Medicine and of Pediatrics, provided a brief reflection and invocation.
Associate Dean for Clinical Education Christopher Steffes, M.D., was the event’s keynote speaker, chosen because of his role as an outspoken advocate for the Class of 2021 to continue their medical education and graduate this year, despite the pandemic’s many restrictions. His speech included many references to historic events, and even hockey metaphors in honor of 1980 Olympic gold medal-winning hockey coach Herb Brooks, and the commencement location, home of the Detroit Red Wings.
“You were all born to be doctors, but your moment is not just one game. Your moment is every day of your career. Every time you talk to a patient, that is the moment you were trained for, and it will occur many times every day. That is your Olympic moment. Your life's work. You get to do it many times a day for the next 50 years. Not just one hockey game,” he said. “Every time you are listening, diagnosing, comforting, reassuring, treating, perhaps curing a patient and fellow human, that is your moment. What a privilege that is. If you take advantage of every one of these moments with patients, you will not be a commodity. When you fight for every patient against economic, political and outside pressure, you are bucking the system and preserving the profession that this is made for. When you use every moment to teach, you touch so many more patient lives. You are every day a doctor. That is what you were born to do.”
After the investiture of the doctoral hood to students who attended the event, Vice Dean for Medical Education Richard Baker, M.D., administered the Hippocratic Oath to the new physicians.
Brianna Sohl, M.D., was among the graduates. She came to medicine because of the potential to change and to serve, “but I didn’t really think I belonged,” she said. “The past four years have shown me that maybe I don’t ‘belong,’ but I am valuable; I emerged as an advocate in ways I never could have imagined prior to being at Wayne State.”
Dr. Sohl was an active student member of the American Medical Association while at the School of Medicine. “Being involved with the AMA transformed my life and career -- even if that’s cliche to say, it’s true,” she added.
She is moving to Chicago this summer to start her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Rush University Medical Center. “I am leaving to be a surgeon in a field of reproductive and sexual health, and that fact alone emphasizes how every doubt and anxiety I had at the beginning was just so wrong about the potential I have,” Dr. Sohl said.
The new doctors will begin their medical residencies in July. Like Dr. Sohl, the Class of 2021 President and final speaker of the day, Yusuf Qadeer, M.D., is moving out of Michigan. He will begin his Internal Medicine residency at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. His heart, however, will remain in Detroit, he shared in a heartfelt speech that touched on oppression, racial tension in the United States and conflict in Israel. He closed his remarks with an homage to protecting the clinical experience at Wayne State University, where he also earned his undergraduate degree.
“The two greatest qualities of Wayne State are the Detroit community we serve in addition to the clinical experience that we get here. The clinical experience at Wayne State University School of Medicine is truly unparalleled. Our clinical partners, particularly Henry Ford and the Detroit Medical Center, they give us exceptional clinical experience because of their willingness to teach, their passion for learning, and their ability to give medical students ownership of our patients. That’s why Detroit is the greatest place to learn in the state of Michigan,” Dr. Qadeer said. “There is only one medical school in the state of Michigan that actually practices medicine. That is Wayne State University School of Medicine.”