A Time to Celebrate Achievement
Normally the third Sunday of May draws celebratory crowds of family and friends to Tufts for Commencement, but 2020 is not like any other year.
While the COVID-19 pandemic postponed undergraduate Commencement and forced graduate school festivities online, it didn’t stop the university from conferring degrees and congratulating the hard-working graduates on their accomplishments.
Hundreds of parents and family members, alumni, and friends recorded their well wishes on video for the graduates. Hank Azaria, A85, H16, famous for his voice acting on The Simpsons, summed it up with humor. “Who needs graduation on a beautiful, warm spring day surrounded by the warmth and love of your family? You’re the COVID Class of 2020, baby, own it! Just look at it this way: the rest of your life’s gonna seem so much better by comparison.”
In addition to Azaria and lots of moms and dads offering best wishes and a sprinkling of congratulatory songs, many others voiced their appreciation for the graduates, including chef and humanitarian José Andrés, Massachusetts U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Boston mayor Marty Walsh, actor Peter Gallagher, A77, U.S. Representatives Katherine Clark, Ayanna Pressley, and Jim McGovern—and many more. (View all the messages here.)
President Anthony P. Monaco said in an address to graduates that “you’re entering a world that is subject to rapid change, in ways that are often unpredictable and sometimes difficult.” He added, “I hope that you will approach the opportunities and challenges ahead of you with the same enthusiasm, insight, compassion, and innovation that you have demonstrated during your time at Tufts.”
While the undergraduate commencement for the School of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering has been postponed until it is possible to safely have an in-person ceremony, the professional schools went virtual. The professional schools also plan in-person gatherings in the future.
Even without its virtual format, the 128th commencement ceremony of the Tufts University School of Medicine was a time of firsts. Interim Dean Peter Bates said he believed this to be the largest and most diverse class of MDs that Tufts has produced. It was also the first since World War II to graduate early. Degrees were officially conferred on April 24, to give the new physicians the ability to join the fight against the coronavirus.
As the graduates prepared to say the Hippocratic oath, Bates said that “at a time of near chaos in health care,” the oath can serve as a touchstone for understanding the crisis and the graduates’ role in ending it.
“The oath confirms that we are members of a profession with responsibility for all human beings,” he said, “and that ours is a calling that can provide great satisfaction and joy.”
Class president Caitlin Fai acknowledged in her address that they would soon be joining the front lines. “But jumping in like this is nothing new for our class, if you think about everything we’ve done together,” she said. She extolled their creation of community service groups that work with Latino women and the homeless and praised their activism through efforts such as White Coats for Black Lives and White Coats Against Gun Violence.
At a separate virtual ceremony for the Public Health and Professional Degree Programs, JudyAnn Bigby, former secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services for Massachusetts, said that the pandemic has revealed that the United States is too focused on medical care rather than public health.
Any gains made in treating diseases like cancer and heart disease, she said, are overwhelmed by the lives lost too soon from poverty and other social conditions. “The disproportionate rate of death from COVID19 among people of color and poor people highlights the failure of the medical system to integrate with public health systems as a way to mediate people’s vulnerabilities,” she said.
This year’s graduates of The Fletcher School are “the right people, in the right place, at the right time” to help the world recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed told them, speaking in recorded remarks from New York City.
“Business as usual is over. The status quo is over,” she said. “The question is: What will replace it? And that, above all, is up to you.”
Mohammed urged graduates at the school’s eighty-seventh commencement to address challenges such as poverty, inequality, and climate change that have made some communities more vulnerable during the crisis. Forging solutions may be difficult, but “it always seems impossible until it’s done,” she said, quoting the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.
Josephine Wolff, assistant professor of cybersecurity policy, marveled at the internet rules that allowed her prerecorded video to travel as packets of information through undersea cables, satellites, and cellular towers and be reassembled to stream into her viewers’ devices.
“It reminds me how fast the world can change, and what an enormous impact a small set of well-crafted rules can have,” said Wolff, the recipient of the James L. Paddock Teaching Award. “It makes me excited at the prospect of all the things you will go on to do, all the new rules you will write that will no doubt seem as utterly incomprehensible to me, as much like magic, as the internet seemed to my grandmother.”
This year’s graduates may not yet know how they will make an impact, “and that’s OK,” Wolff said. Echoing her father’s advice when she was struggling to choose a dissertation topic, she added, “If you could plan it all out in advance, then it wouldn’t be worth doing.”
“Who better to lead than the Class of 2020?” asked Yannis Koroneos, president of the DMD graduating class from Tufts School of Dental Medicine, addressing his classmates through cyberspace on May 17.
As the new dentists head out to a health-care environment transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic, “we will be the leaders who mark the beginning of a new era in patient care,” Koroneos said. “We will forge a new path forward and set new standards for dentistry. I cannot think of a better group to do this.”
While the 152nd commencement of the School of Dental Medicine was undoubtedly unlike its predecessors, many elements remained the same: acknowledgement of the students’ hard work, their spirit of volunteerism, their dedication to their patients, and their bonds of friendship for each other.
“I found a piece of my heart in each one of you,” said Nadine Amr Bedair, president of the DI international class, representing dentists from thirteen countries who have now earned their U.S. degrees. And at the conclusion, Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs Mary-Jane Hanlon, D97, led the class in the traditional Oath for the Dental Graduate.
The virtual ceremony recognized both DMD and master’s degree candidates.
“I commend your class for your morale, support, and dedication to excellence and this is especially true in the last two months,” said Dean Nadeem Karimbux. “By the end of this celebration I will greet you as fellow doctors,” he said. “Your accomplishments and your service bring honor not only to yourselves, but to the School of Dental Medicine.
The desire to hold a future ceremony to recognize the graduates and drape them with their pale purple-trimmed doctoral hoods was also shared by Aruna Ramesh, DI04, associate dean of academic affairs. “The past few months have been very challenging for all of us. We wish we could have been together in person to celebrate this momentous occasion, but we are together in spirit,” Ramesh said. “The 2020 graduates will forever hold a special place in my heart.”
At the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy’s virtual commencement ceremony, speakers included Dean Dariush Mozaffarian; Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life; and Friedman School Board of Advisors Chair Tricia Perez Kennealy. Afterward, division chairs and department heads hosted live Zoom gatherings for individual Friedman School programs, where they read graduates’ names and held interactive activities.
Doctoral candidate Katrina Sarson delivered the class address, describing the inspiration and spirit of inquiry that have characterized her years at the Friedman School, and pointing to the possibilities of the future despite the difficulties of the moment.
“It is heartbreaking not to be able to hug and high-five and say congratulations face to face, but it’s so important to say thank you and honor the ways that we’ve impacted each other,” she said. “I believe that within the chaos and uncertainty of this time is the opportunity for each of us to do great things.”
Sonia Angell, director and state public health officer at the California Department of Public Health, acknowledged in her commencement address that this year’s graduates are facing steep challenges. But COVID-19 has exposed the inequities and weaknesses of our health, food, and other systems, which opens the door to change, she said.
“You were not unlucky, but rather honored and blessed to be here at this moment when many things are crumbling, but even more things are possible,” she said. “Here’s the beauty in the middle of this difficult and sad moment of reckoning: We can choose to do this differently.”
Angell called on graduates to make the most of this chance. “You have an education that will help you answer the call of a world that desperately needs your insight about the power of nutrition to heal. You learned how to tackle big problems—complex problems and systems—and you now have the rare opportunity to do it,” she said. “Welcome to the community of health professionals graduates. This work won’t be done by magic, but the results could very well be magical.”
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine celebrated its thirty-eighth commencement on May 17 with a ceremony led by Dean Alastair Cribb, who pointed out that the public is watching scientific research unfold in real time like never before. A fitting point, given that the gathering was virtual, with hundreds of graduates and their families and friends watching over Zoom and YouTube.
“You only need to look at what is happening around us today to understand the importance of scientific research, its interpretation, and its application to the advancement and protection of human and animal health,” said Cribb. “Lack of knowledge surrounding a new virus strain has hampered everything from control to treatment.”
Akram Da’darah, associate professor of infectious disease and global health, gave the first of two faculty addresses, and emphasized how the students’ specialties are desperately needed amid COVID-19.
“The interdisciplinary work you are trained to do is critical in the control of this pandemic and in the prevention of others from happening. You don’t need to wait for a challenge to come. The challenge is already here,” he said.
The students are ready to rise to the challenge, said class speakers Jacqueline Buckley, VG19, who received an M.S. in Conservation Medicine, and Ezra Frager, V20, who received his D.V.M. Both emphasized that the Class of 2020 had a “tough-as-nails” attitude that allowed them to plow through when the pandemic hit.
“We are still full to the brim with persistence, resilience, and grit. Even as our world changes seemingly overnight we adapt, we persevere and overcome each challenge,” said Buckley.
Frager delivered his address seated in front of a row of cows eating from a trough—and no, it wasn’t a Zoom background. Graduating amid the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t the only attribute that made the Class of 2020 so unique, he said.
“I’m proud to call this my class. We are a class of diverse, extremely academically inclined people who won’t stand for any injustices.” he said.
Melissa Mazan, V93, professor of clinical sciences, gave the second faculty speech. She reminded graduates that although this feels like a time of uncertainty, there is always uncertainty, and their education at Tufts will give them strength in the face of it.
“We are squarely in the midst of uncertainty. But challenge and uncertainty are what Tufts has always done well,” she said. “And you will always be part of Tufts.”
Julie Flaherty, Monica Jimenez, Taylor McNeil, Angela Nelson, Helene Ragovin, and Heather Stephenson contributed to this story. To contact the writers, email firstname.lastname@example.org.