While masks were required at UConn Health’s 51st commencement ceremony at the Jorgenson Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs on May 9, nothing could mask the smiling eyes and Husky pride of the more than 260 graduating new physicians, dentists, scientists, and public health experts surrounded by their faculty, friends, and families.
The Class of 2022 includes 49 new dentists receiving doctorate of dental medicine (DMD) degrees, 103 new physicians with doctorates of medicine (MD), and 109 new scientist and public health experts graduating with degrees across Doctor of Philosophy in biomedical science (30); Doctor of Philosophy in public health (2); Master of dental science (27); Master of public health (42); Master of science in biomedical science (5); and Master of science in clinical and translational research (3).
“The last two years have presented unprecedented challenges to the fields of health and medicine,” stated Interim University of Connecticut President Radenka Maric in her Commencement address. “You are truly ready for anything. You are among the best representatives our University community can have, and we are proud of you.”
“Congratulations to each of you newly minted physicians and scholars for making it through these most challenging times – and together – with your fellow classmates, faculty, staff and families,” shared Dr. Bruce T. Liang, interim CEO of UConn Health and dean of UConn School of Medicine. “Not even a-once-in-a-lifetime pandemic could stop your momentum.”
Liang added: “At UConn Health we’ve been celebrating ‘50 Years of Doctors’ and UConn is so proud to be Connecticut’s number one producer of medical professionals. As of today, you are now part of this proud legacy.”
In fact, UConn is the largest single source of new physicians, surgeons, and dentists for the State of Connecticut. The dental school and medical school have produced almost 4,000 physicians and nearly 2,000 dentists in the schools’ history. Also, it has trained more than 1,000 public health experts and 700 scientists.
Dr. Steven Lepowsky, dean of the School of Dental Medicine, applauded the dental students for their resilience during COVID-19.
“I challenge you to continue to strive for excellence in all that you do – for that is the hallmark of a UConn grad. Your resiliency, your flexibility, your steadfast drive, and an incredible amount of grace and maturity – all in the context of a life-altering pandemic – have brought you to this point in the journey,” said Lepowsky. “You have been given an incredible opportunity to improve the lives and well-being of others. Remember that the trust that your patients will place in you is an amazing gift – please embrace that gift, treasure it and respect it.”
Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of The Graduate School, Kent Holsinger, also addressed those receiving a graduate degree in Master of Public Health or a Doctor of Philosophy.
“Our world needs people like you more than ever before,” said Holsinger. “Your hard work didn’t bring you here because this is your destination. It brought you here because this is the start of a new journey. This ceremony is a commencement, a new beginning.”
Class of 2022’s commencement speaker and Doctor of Science honorary degree recipient was Dr. William G. Nelson, a champion in the fight to conquer cancer and leader in translational cancer research. He is director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Marion I. Knott Professor of Oncology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Interestingly, his Hopkins classmates were UConn School of Medicine’s very own Professors Dr. Se-Jin Lee and Dr. Emily Germain-Lee. Nelson serves on the boards of the V Foundation and the Break Through Cancer Foundation, scientific co-chair for Stand Up 2 Cancer, and executive editor of Cancer Today.
“Your generation is astounding: the most diverse in our history, the best educated, and the most committed to careers emphasizing ethics, values, and social justice,” said Nelson. “You can see this reflected among your classmates who are now your new health profession colleagues. More than half of you are women, more than 20% of you are from under-represented racial and ethnic groups, and each and every one of you is going to be the best of doctors, dentists, scientists, and public health officials.”
Nelson concluded: “Looking over you all today, I can’t even imagine what your generation of health professionals will accomplish. Your generation of new doctors, dentists, scientists, and public health officials cares very deeply about disparities in health outcomes and in life expectancy and I know you’re ready and willing to work to end them.”
Graduate School student speaker Alversia Wade, 24 of Waterford, graduated from UConn undergrad summa cum laude in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in human development and family sciences. She plans to pursue a career in public health after graduation with a particular focus on implementing health programs in minority populations. As a child, she noticed disparities in access to health resources in communities that were predominantly minority, and this led to her desire to understand these differences and eventually pursue her master’s of public health.
“I am incredibly proud of this class for adapting to COVID-19. Despite these challenges we exceled. We lived and studied during a pandemic. Some of us were even on the front-lines,” said Wade. “We have been given the tools to shape the future of public health. We are poised to take action. We are the agents of change.”
School of Dental Medicine student speaker Robert Violette addressed his Class of 2022 graduates. “The pandemic gave us no choice but to become more adaptable…and because of it we are better clinicians and Samaritans of this earth.”
“It is difficult to define such a diverse body of students by just one word. If I were to pick one, however, it would be resilient. As arduous as these four years have been, it was our resilience in the face of adversity that continues to unite us today,” said Violette who attended UConn for his undergraduate degree too. After completing a one-year general practice residency training at Danbury Hospital he plans to stay in Connecticut with the hopes for his own private practice one day.
Medical student speaker Klair Lubonja, 28 of Newington, was also a UConn undergrad. His next stop is a general surgery residency at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire.
Lubonja recently shared how challenging it was to train to be doctor during a pandemic: “Being in hospitals during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was challenging physically and emotionally. However, our struggles as students paled in comparison to what attending physicians, nurses, and ancillary staff had to experience. They are true heroes and we students are thankful that they took us under their wing even when hospitals were being overwhelmed by ill patients.”
In his address to his fellow medical students Lubonja said, “Here we are graduating. We endured. No matter the challenges that presented us these last four years we persevered. For that reason I have no doubt that we will be successful in residency and beyond.”
“Congratulations! We did it!” exclaimed Lubonja.
Also at the event UConn Health Board of Director Faculty Recognition Awards for both 2022 and 2021 recipients were presented. Last year’s honoree was Dr. David Henderson, chair of the Department of Family Medicine and associate dean for multicultural and community affairs at UConn School of Medicine. The UConn-trained family medicine practitioner was recognized for his longtime teaching and leadership contributions.
This year’s 2022 new recipient is Frank C. Nichols, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor of periodontology at UConn School of Dental Medicine. He joined the faculty in 1984 after completing his UConn Master of Dental Science degree and specialty residency training in periodontics at UConn. He’s recognized for his excellence in teaching, scholarship and discovery, service and patient care. He is a nationally and internally recognized expert scientist in lipidomics and the role of complex bacterial lipids in inflammatory diseases that span outside of the oral cavity. His groundbreaking research has led to new understandings of the relationships between oral diseases and systemic disease, including cardiovascular diseases.
“This unexpected recognition reaffirms my commitment to students, staff, colleagues, patients and the University at large,” said Nichols recently. “I am truly humbled and immensely grateful for this honor.”
And today the future of health care is much brighter with hundreds of new graduates from UConn Schools of Medicine, Dental Medicine and Graduate School entering the state and nation’s health care workforce.
“We can’t wait to see what you do next,” stressed Dean Liang.
Dean Lepowsky also warmly shared: “You will forever be part of our UConn dental family. I wish each and every member of the Class of 2022 the very best – wherever life takes you. Congratulations on all that you have accomplished and I hope that your journey continues to be filled with much success, health and happiness.”
UConn Interim President Maric kindly concluded, “You will always have a place here, because, while you may no longer be students as of today, you are still Huskies Forever.”