Date May 1, 2021

New Brown M.D.s convene to honor achievements, celebrate and reflect after exceptionally intense year

At Brown’s medical school Commencement ceremony, the 119 graduates in the Warren Alpert Medical School’s Class of 2021 marked four years of intense academic and clinical training in joyous, jubilant solidarity.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The standard four years of medical school are famously intense and all-immersive — add to that a global pandemic and nationwide unrest provoked by racial injustice, and for many new physicians, the journey may have felt even more arduous than expected.

None of that stopped the 119 members of the Warren Alpert Medical School Class of 2021 from celebrating in joyous, jubilant solidarity — together, as a group.

Unlike many graduation celebrations this year, Brown’s medical school Commencement ceremony took place live and in-person, outdoors under a tent on Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle, on Saturday, May 1. Graduates, almost all vaccinated against COVID-19 and all in masks  — some in surgical masks typical of medical providers, others in patterned or decorated masks especially for the occasion — processed through the Van Wickle Gates, took the Physician’s Oath standing shoulder-to-shoulder and received their diplomas in hand.

Among the University leaders who joined to mark the momentous occasion was Brown President Christina H. Paxson, who in typical years is unable to attend the medical school ceremony because it’s held at the same time she’s addressing undergraduates at the College Ceremony. With this year’s events taking place across two days to allow for a de-densified campus, Paxson took the opportunity to acknowledge the challenges faced by Brown’s medical students this year, from interrupted clinical rotations to fractured academic focus due to anxiety, anger or fear over current events.

“Through all this, you have been extraordinary,” she said. “I’m so impressed by how you’ve navigated the past 14 months — you’ve continued to learn, supported friends, helped Rhode Island communities, advocated for what you needed, stood up for equity and justice. Everyone at the University is so proud of your accomplishments.”

Medical School Ceremony

 

At Brown’s medical school ceremony, 119 graduates marked four years of intense academic and clinical training in joyous, jubilant solidarity.

Paxson highlighted one of the overarching lessons of the pandemic that will undoubtedly apply to many of the health and medicine situations Brown’s new physicians will contend with: How advances in medicine have favored the privileged. Graduates in the audience will surely develop cures and strive to give the best possible care to every individual patient, Paxson noted, but she pressed them to do even more.

“I urge you to constantly ask yourself who’s missing,” she said. “Who isn’t receiving the newest treatments? Who isn’t in my waiting room that could benefit from my services? Who isn’t among my colleagues — who is missing from the profession?”

Addressing health inequities head-on takes courage, Paxson told the new M.D.s, but comes with the potential to amplify the positive impact they can have on the world.

Care for patients, care for physicians

The in-person nature of the year’s celebration, notable in its own right in an era of virtual gatherings, was especially appropriate given the focus of many of the ceremony’s speakers on the personal aspects of medical care — the importance of keeping in mind the wholeness and entirety of each individual patient, as well as the self-care needs of the provider.

In his Commencement address, Class of 2021 member Jason Tsichlis urged his fellow graduates to embrace their roles as scholars of the human condition. He reminded them that medicine encompasses an “understanding and appreciation of humanity, joy and humor, vulnerability, grief, advocacy and righteousness.”

“Scholarship of the human condition implies not only the grasp of physiology, pathology and anatomy — but the fluid understanding of personhood,” he said.

Tsichlis is known to fellow medical students as “a Renaissance man,” explained Sydney Tan, both Tsichlis’ partner and a fellow classmate who introduced him on stage. He studied art at Bates College, earned a master’s degree in international agricultural development from the University of California, Davis, served in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso, established an educational nonprofit and worked on an oyster farm — all before beginning his journey into medicine. The spirit of Tsichlis’ remarks reflected his own boundless curiosity and eclectic approach to life, as he talked about practicing medicine as an art.

In his view, artistry emerges when a physician brings their entire self to care for another.

“As we reflect on how to provide care that addresses the human condition as a whole, we will find that artistry in this pursuit is about using our talents and ingenuity and combining them with passion to leave the world better and more beautiful than it was before,” Tsichlis said. “Our art as physicians is at once a reflection of our world and values, a comment on what we experience, and an intervention into that domain. The artistry applied to this work intuits an aspect that is unattainable by traditional education—a personal spark that elevates our efforts to the sublime.”

The student speaker acknowledged that he was setting a high bar for himself and for fellow graduates, and suggested strategies for self-preservation.

“We must be able to clearly define when too much of ourselves is lost to this process, so let us not immediately confuse being tired, being frustrated, being angry or being overwhelmed with being burned out,” he said. “Recall that internal spark, that inherent artistry imbued in our work. Creating a balance between sacrifice and self-preservation will allow us to maintain our own humanity and give us the drive to sustain the humanity of others."

Dr. Colin Harrington, a medical school professor and this year’s faculty speaker, reminded graduates to strive for balance and earnestly urged students to practice self-care: “My generation had none of this,” Harrington said. “No one did this — it wasn’t part of our curriculum. Some in my generation poke fun at it. But make no mistake: it’s crucial. Physician, heal thyself.”

Harrington’s remarks resonated, considering they marked one of the few components of Saturday’s ceremony that were delivered virtually: He prerecorded them because, he explained, he was in Vermont reconnecting with his family and with nature.

“While I hate to miss your graduation, I thought this was important,” he said. “Take care of your patients. Take care of yourselves. Take care of your friends and families.”

A last hurrah on Simmons Quad

As campus leaders planned each of this year’s Commencement ceremonies, one important goal was to honor traditions and reflect the spirit of the annual celebration to the greatest extent possible, even while providing for COVID-safe events. With medical school dean Dr. Jack A. Elias presiding, the new M.D.s pledged the Physician’s Oath in unison and symbolically marked the culmination of their Brown experience by processing through the Van Wickle Gates — what they couldn’t do was celebrate on-site with family members, given the graduates-only ceremony per pandemic protocols

Gabriel Onor Jr., an aspiring orthopedic surgeon, said he has always felt that graduation is more about family members than the graduates themselves. Onor is fond of a proverb he learned from his father, who is of the Igbo people of Nigeria, that can be roughly translated as, “support is greater than the fight.” What that means, Onor explained, “is that it essentially takes a village to get through. Ultimately, graduation highlights everyone around the graduate who helped them get to that point.”

His parents and seven siblings planned to watch the ceremony online from his hometown of New Orleans. But Onor, who said he has treasured the warmth and closeness of medical students and faculty at Brown, took comfort in the fact that he was able to celebrate Match Day in March with his family in New Orleans, surrounded by parents and siblings as well as cousins. It’s where he was when he found out that he was matched to Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, where he’ll begin his medical residency in the coming months.

“This year, we’ve had to change things up and be flexible,” he said, noting that he could feel his family’s love and strong support from afar.

For Charlotte Lee, who earned both her M.D. as well as a master’s of science in population medicine on Saturday, the student-focused nature of the medical school graduation offered the chance to create new ways to celebrate.

“Rituals and ceremonies are important to me as a way to mark beginnings and endings,” Lee said, “and I’ve been trying to find smaller ways to commemorate these events.”

Lee grew up splitting her time between New Jersey and New York City’s Chinatown and said her parents, siblings and in-laws were watching the medical school ceremony from a beach house in southern Rhode Island. “Later today we’ll have a clambake to celebrate,” she said.

A few hours south, in New York City, Lee’s grandmother and aunt were also watching the event livestream.

“I’m thinking of my grandmother today,” Lee said. “She’s one of my heroes and one of the people I most look up to.”

Lee said she was happy that her OB-GYN residency at Tufts University would begin on her grandmother’s birthday: “It’s an auspicious thing, in Chinese culture, to have the dates line up like that.”

This past week, as the graduates were picking up their caps and gowns and preparing to take the Physician’s Oath at this weekend’s ceremony, Lee and three of her best friends from medical school, as well as her husband, went on vacation in Maine. They relaxed and reflected on their experiences and past four years in school together.

“The people are what attracted me to Brown medical school,” Lee said. “They’re very thoughtful, about how they treat each other and about how they can make a difference in the world. Medicine can be so competitive, but I feel that a lot of the people who are attracted to this school, in particular, are more focused on taking care of each other than competing against one another.”

Lee said she was very grateful to have the last hurrah on Simmons Quad.

“I know it’s just us, but that’s kind of nice,” she said. “It’s very special to be able to commemorate something that was very hard, and to be able to be together for this big, momentous ending.”