The Florida State University College of Medicine graduated its largest class Saturday as 125 new physicians crossed the stage of Ruby Diamond Concert Hall. An additional 12 master’s students graduated from the Biomedical Sciences/Bridge to Clinical Medicine program and have been accepted into the M.D. Class of 2027.
“What a beautiful day to become a doctor!” Interim Dean Alma Littles, M.D., said in her opening remarks.
Littles reminded the assembly that while medical school is challenging even in the most ideal circumstances – “There’s a reason not everyone gets to become a doctor,” she said – the M.D. Class of 2023 had a previously unheard-of mountain to climb.
“When you are sent home during your second semester of medical school to take classes online because of a worldwide pandemic, and you spend your entire second year of didactic training in a virtual learning environment, the challenges are magnified exponentially.
“Yet here we are,” Littles said.
Class President Gabriella Sehres, headed to residency in general surgery at the University of California – Davis, also spoke of the impact COVID had on their class.
“As the impact of COVID became clearer and more serious, the members of our student executive board responded with individualized check-ins on every single one of our classmates to make sure no one slipped through the cracks,” she said. “Because at the end of the day, we are all one giant family and absolutely no one gets left behind.
“And here we are, graduating on time, thanks to our incredible COM administrators and faculty finding a way. You all are really some impressive human beings.”
In some ways, the day was a study in contrasts – of hellos and goodbyes; of pomp, circumstance and academic regalia blended with whooping, hollering and the blaring of air horns; of laughter and tears; of connections of long ago coming full circle; and of changing roles and new perspectives.
The overall vibe, though, was joy and hope.
“I’m taking one child away and leaving another,” said Dr. Ravneet Grewal, an oncologist in northern Virginia. She and her husband, Tej Grewal, watched their son, Dr. Kabir Grewal, graduate Saturday. Their daughter, Kayanaat Grewal, begins medical school at the end of this month as part of the M.D. Class of 2027.
“We love it here,” their mother said. “The atmosphere is so warm, so welcoming.”
Drs. Jared Wainwright and Lethia Wainwright went through their third graduation together Saturday but their first as a married couple; they celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary the day before. The high school couple went to the University of Florida together. Wanting to give back to their community before starting medical school, they returned to Columbia County for a year. She taught eighth-grade science at Lake Butler Middle School, and he taught biology at Columbia High School.
In addition to earning medical degrees, they added something else special while in Tallahassee: son James.
“My mother made him his own little regalia to wear,” Lethia said. Maternal grandmother Angela Johnson and a large group of other family and friends cared for James in the audience while his parents were graduating.
She is beginning a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and he will be at UTMB, too, doing a research year.
Neither of Aariha Ali’s parents could be there – her mother is currently in Bangladesh helping settle her own mother’s estate and her father woke up sick Saturday in Orlando – but she was surrounded by good friends and someone who welcomed her into the world as she drew her first breath.
Twenty-five years after Fort Pierce OB/GYN Juliette Lomax delivered little Aariha, Fort Pierce Regional Campus Dean Juliette Lomax-Homier placed a hood over Dr. Aariha Ali’s head and welcomed her to the profession.
“I think it was my dad who figured out in the middle of my anatomy semester that Dean Lomax-Homier was Dr. Lomax, my mom’s obstetrician,” Dr. Ali said. “We lived in Okeechobee, which is very rural, and the hospital there was not certified to deliver babies. My mother had to go to the doctor in Fort Pierce.”
Ali is headed to the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine for a residency in internal medicine, and she hopes to do a pulmonary and critical care fellowship afterward.
Littles took a moment during her opening comments to pay tribute to Charlie Ouimet, a former faculty member who died earlier this month and “was without a doubt the most honored teacher in this medical school’s 23-year history,” winning 21 teaching awards. To honor his memory, she shared something Ouimet said when he gave the 2012 commencement address, that graduates’ family members needed “to start practicing ways to drop into casual conversations the fact that your loved one is now a doctor.”
As did Oiumet, Littles asked family members to rise and use whichever word was appropriate – son, daughter, wife, husband, grandchild, whatever – and on the count of three say, “My (blank) the doctor!” They did, and it still brought laughter.
Commencement speaker Dr. Christie Alexander, a member of College of Medicine’s first graduating class in 2005, was also the first alumnus to return to the college as a full-time faculty member and she shared that Oiumet spoke at her graduation. She left FSU to run a small, privately owned medical clinic in the rural West Texas high desert.
She shared four insights she has gained in her career: Be fully and completely present for all your patients; put on your own oxygen mask first; be the voice for your patients, colleagues and community; and reflect on what has happened in your day to honor the gift you’ve been given to heal.
“Create your network. Find your people. Talk to your colleagues, your mentors, your family, your friends,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to reach out.”