Washington University made the difficult decision to cancel all May 2020 in-person Commencement celebrations to help prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus. Nonetheless, our graduates and our community exhibited incredible spirit, finding new ways to honor the occasion and celebrate the Class of 2020.
The MD Commencement Recognition Ceremony went virtual, playing on YouTube as family and friends around the world tuned in and posted messages of pride and cheer.
David H. Perlmutter, MD
Executive Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs,
George and Carol Bauer Dean and Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor
I know this is not how you imagined your graduation. Over the course of all these years, the grueling days and night when you pushed yourself both physically and mentally beyond where you ever thought possible, you may have once or twice thought about this moment. You probably imagined walking across the stage in your regalia, your families and friends cheering you on, a moment full of pomp and circumstance, a recognition and a celebration of the most inconceivable hard work you put in at one of the world’s leading medical schools. I’m quite certain you did not expect to be sitting in your homes apart from your classmates hearing me speak to you from a screen.
If we had gathered as planned downtown in person, I would have talked about your unbelievable accomplishments, the leadership you have shown in spearheading the kinds of initiatives that have changed the landscape of our school: like your medical Spanish program, several of your wellness promoting programs and 500 Women in Medicine.
I would have surely mentioned your outstanding academic performance and the incredible success you’ve had in matching to our country’s top medical and surgical residency programs. Your dedication to serving your community was particularly evident in the last few weeks as you led or contributed to the school’s COVID 19 volunteer efforts.
I would have also offered and inspirational message, perhaps talking about how the role of physician and physician scientist asks that we draw from a deep inner well in order to serve others, often at our own expense, even in situations when that seems impossible. I would have talked about how it demands that we use careful analysis and logic, even when there are no right answers, no good answers, no established protocols or algorithms; that we look for solutions grounded in data and science, in spite those who would dismiss the careful study and rigorous standards on which our profession is built.
Speaking to you now from the ether rather than in person as I would have liked, it is clear that all of these qualities, all of what you are and what we hope you will continue to become, have taken the spotlight, at a time when challenges to science and a dismissal of facts have been woefully widespread. We now face a problem, a formidable virus that demands solutions grounded in data and scientific imagination and there is urgency. We now have a problem that attracts the attention of the entire world to those values that we have emphasized during your education and training here: the selflessness and sacrifice of the physician, our commitment to the sickest and most vulnerable, and the vital importance of basic biomedical research.
As you know, a special reverence for the scientific basis of medicine has been a trademark of Washington University for many decades. Now in our new reality all eyes are on physicians, and physician scientists, looking to us to provides solutions, from the diagnostic tests critical for public health, to therapeutic drugs and new vaccines. In many ways, it is the ultimate validation of what this medical school has always stood for.
As I have thought about the professional journey on which you are about to embark in the midsts of the historic coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 crisis, a passage from Albert Camus’s novel The Plague strikes me as so fitting. This famous novel follows a physician as he fights an outbreak of the bubonic plague ravaging his city. I know it is a subject now very close to home. This doctor, who is called on to provide medical care to those who have been stricken, to console families in their lowest moments, and also to help guide the community in containing the outbreak and preventing chaos is described with the following phrase:
“It was as if he was fighting against creation as he found it.”
Why do I think that description is something any physician can relate to? Why does that phrase resonate so deeply for me?
It is because our role is to confront the human condition as it is given to us, and then to use our intelligence, science and judgment to cajole it into sparing those who would be taken from us and to limit the harm it might do to others. Right now fighting against creation means using all of our expertise and all of our resources to contain a virus that has disrupted life as we know it and brought the world to its knees. But we know this is not just in the times of plagues. As physicians we are always in some ways fighting against creation. On our hospital wards, in our clinics and in our labs.
I want to say that again: As physicians, we are always in some ways fighting against creation.
We know that your clinical education has helped you to understand this deeply. We have watched how you have grown into the physicians you are now. Time and again you have looked at your world and figured out how to make it better, safer, more equitable. All of the qualities that we hope to cultivate in the next generation of doctors and scientist, you have them in spades.
Today as we officially welcome you into our ranks, we must acknowledge that we are sending you into a world full of unknowns. You are heading out into a more uncertain medical landscape than any previous class has had to encountered. This too, you are ready for.
I know you have experienced multiple cycles of grief over the last few weeks as it became clear that we would not be able to recognize you in the grand and public way we should should and that you so richly deserve. But you have been flexible and resilient and gracious. I know I speak on behalf of our entire faculty when I say that you have made us all proud and offered us renewed hope in the future of medicine at a time when we are so clearly in need of it. This graduation is not what any of us imagined or wanted for you.
And while it will be true that you graduated medical school during a time of great crisis, it will also always be true that you became doctors at a time when the value of physicians to society could not possibly be more profound. The eyes of the world are on our hospitals and on our labs, and they will soon be on you as well. How fortunate we are that you are the future of medicine and medical science. There are challenges ahead, and you are ready for them.
Congratulations Washington University Class of 2020, from our school, from me, and from my 93-year-old mother who is fighting COVID-19 and holding her own. We cannot wait to see how you change the world and make it a better place.
Transcript of Chancellor’s Remarks and Conferral of Degrees
Andrew D. Martin, PhD
Conferral of Degrees Chancellor
Greetings to the Class of 2020 and to your families and loved ones, and congratulations on this significant milestone. To the Class of 2020, please know that this virtual event is not meant to replace your graduation. I can promise you that we are working on plans for a proper in-person celebration sometime in the future. But for now, let me offer some thoughts.
First, a big shout-out and thanks to those parents and guardians who have supported our students. You should feel immensely proud of all your child has accomplished, and we are extremely grateful for your partnership in their success.
Second, a significant thanks goes to our faculty and staff across the university. Those who helped move us quickly to remote instruction. Those who helped pack belongings. Those who sent notes with support, encouragement, and resources to our students. Those who have been here all along to cultivate their success —from the time they set foot on campus until now. We owe you a debt of gratitude, and I am reminded especially in moments like these that it is people like you who make this place so special and distinctive. Thank you!
And now, to the Class of 2020. I want to start with a story.
This is a story about a woman named Alice Emasu. Alice is originally from a small village in Uganda known for its lack of resources and basic human rights, including access to proper health care, prevention, and education. But that didn’t stop Alice from pursuing her dream to enact change.
Her passion for women’s rights and public health began at the young age of 18, when she discovered that several of her friends had died from obstetric fistula. While this particular condition was devastating her home village of Bululu and others around it, instead of letting these challenges overcome her, she used it as fuel to launch interventions.
In 1999, Alice founded The Association for the Rehabilitation and Re-orientation of Women for Development in order to promote awareness and treat the condition, yet she continued to come up against obstacles in her home country.
As a result, Alice chose to pursue her master’s degree here at Washington University’s Brown School. Armed with a degree, philanthropic contributions, and an ambitious dream, last year, Alice spearheaded the construction of the Specialized Women’s Hospital in Soroti, Eastern Region, Uganda, one of the first of its kind in the country.
This is a profound story about overcoming adversity—and not just overcoming adversity, but using that adversity to fuel passion, drive, and overwhelming success.
Many of you have already faced adversity in your life. Some of you are, as of today, the first in your family to graduate from college. Some of you come from households near or below the poverty line. Some of you struggle with disabilities or mental health concerns. Some of you have faced injury or physical ailment. Some of you have overcome the loss of a parent or loved one.
This semester you faced yet another collective obstacle—a spring semester that abruptly moved online, immense feelings of displacement, and the loss of a physical community of people who have helped you thrive and flourish up until this point.
This one collective obstacle has also led to other individual obstacles.
Some of you have lost your jobs, or your parents have lost their jobs. Some of you needed to find a place to live. Some of you were worried about your own health as well as the health and safety of your loved ones. Some of you have had summer and fall plans put on hold. And all of you have experienced some kind of loss in physical isolation. Indeed, we are all grieving in some form or another. These anxieties and disappointments are real, and they are valid. In addition, they are obstacles you have worked hard and quickly to overcome—some that you are still overcoming as we speak.
Every year during Commencement, the Chancellor gives a charge to the Class. In keeping with that tradition, my charge to you today is that you find ways to live in the present moment, to not let uncertainty overcome your thoughts, and to find ways to use these moments of adversity to learn and grow. To find new ways of coping, new ways of doing, and new ways of relating to one another and the world around you. To become more empathetic and compassionate. To fuel your passions and turn dreams into realities.
I hope you can look back on this spring semester and be proud of the ways you channeled adversity for the betterment of yourself and the betterment of humanity.
Alice’s story of adversity has already been written in stone. While there are many similar stories written about others who have come before, you better believe that this historic moment is also being written in stone. And when we write your stories as alumni of Washington University, what will they say about you, the Class of 2020?
Right now, you are working to write YOUR story, and someday, I hope the headlines read something likes these:
Washington University alumnus discovers breakthrough treatment for cancer.
Washington University alumna leads nonprofit to address racial disparities in St. Louis.
Washington University alumnus overturns historic case of injustice in their own community.
Sacrifice, global citizenship, leadership, service, dignity, and resilience —these are some of the qualities and values we hold dearly at Washington University. The values we have been working to cultivate in you since you stepped foot on our campus. And the values we hope you carry with you as you work to make yourself and the world a better place for years and decades to come.
While I’m deeply saddened that this is the way this phase of your time on this campus had to end, I am comforted to know that your time with us at Washington University is just beginning. That’s why we call it Commencement. Your WashU journey doesn’t end here. It starts here, and what you do moving forward will be the story we write.
Thank you, once again, for your flexibility, your determination, your passion, and your convictions, and congratulations on this significant milestone. Once the time is right, I look forward to seeing you back on this campus to celebrate in person, and I look forward to many more moments with you as you engage in your lifelong Washington University journey. Until that time comes, stay safe and well, and know that we are thinking of you.
Thank you #WashU20:
Postcards to students who embody the spirit of the Class of 2020
Best wishes to the MD Class of 2020, from the faculty of WashU Med. Please accept our congratulations, our advice and our heartfelt wishes for a life filled with health and happiness. We cannot wait to see what is next for you!
Dear Class of 2020,
You inspire us! You have served as dedicated and determined leaders in our community, and we are excited to see all of the incredible things that you will accomplish.
Congratulations! From the Class of 2021
Dear Future Doctors,
You amaze us! During these last two months, you have shown that you will be not just incredible doctors, but that you already are bold, compassionate and resilient leaders.
You have shown that you are the future of medicine. And we could not be more proud.
Congratulations! From the WashU Med faculty
You make us proud to be part of WashU! Thank you for dedicating your lives to service and innovation. You are embarking on a wonderful journey.
From WUSM alumni, faculty & staff