Miller School Class of 2017 Celebrates a Spectacular Commencement

“Congratulations, Doctors!” University of Miami President Julio Frenk called out as the 196 graduating members of the Miller School of Medicine Class of 2017 marched to the stage Wednesday night to be hooded by their teachers and mentors, receive their diplomas, and exult in the cheers and applause of their family and friends.

“Wow, Class of 2017 – we did it!” student speaker Shida Haghighat, M.D./M.P.H., said on an evening dedicated to celebrating her classmates’ hard work and accomplishments over the past four years, and their limitless opportunity to heal their patients – and the world – in the years ahead.

“Today, you officially become physicians, which gives you the remarkable opportunity to prevent illness and help those in need of medical care,” interim Dean Laurence B. Gardner, M.D., told the graduates at the Watsco Center on the Coral Gables campus. “Above all, we remind you to be guided by the qualities that come from your heart: compassion, patience, empathy, persistence and respect.”

Frenk joined the Dean in praising the graduates for their commitment to medicine and all that it means. “As the first physician to lead this remarkable University, I know first-hand the courage it takes to pursue a profession where your actions and decisions can have such a direct impact on human lives,” Frenk said.

“As a physician, whether it be as a researcher, a clinician, or a public health practitioner, you must set the bar high for serving your patients, often in their greatest time of need, and act as their most passionate advocate.”

Students expressed gratitude for the passionate advocacy and support of their parents and other family members. “We’re all here today because someone gave us strength, helped us, held us in the palm of their hands,” said Haghighat, one of 46 students completing the Miller School’s pioneering M.D./M.P.H. program this year. “Families, you may have come here to celebrate us, but we’re here today actually to celebrate you.”

An honorary doctor of science degree was presented to Sir Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology at University College London and past president of the World Medical Association, who has spent an influential 40-year career showing how poverty, class and other social conditions affect our health.

“When people get sick they need access to quality, affordable care,” Marmot said in his commencement address. “But it is not the lack of health care that led to their getting sick in the first place. It is the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, and inequities in power, money and resources that give rise to inequities in these conditions of daily life – what I call the social determinants of health.

“Setting them right is a matter of social justice. Indeed, on the cover of the report of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health, we put, ‘Social Injustice is Killing on a Grand Scale.’ ”

Marmot is the author of The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity and The Health Gap: The Challenge of an Unequal World, books that outline his approaches to meeting the fundamental human need for autonomy, empowerment, and freedom. He is now chairing a Commission on Equity and Health Inequalities in the Americas.

“You and I have a sacred duty to uphold the truth,” Marmot told the graduates. “We also have a duty to advance the cause of social justice by preventing illness and treating the sick, who, in large measure, become ill because of inequality and the social determinants of health. … Let’s dream of a fairer world.”

At a reception for the students and families after commencement, Steven M. Altschuler, M.D., Senior Vice President for Health Affairs and CEO of the University of Miami Health System, thanked Gardner for his dedicated service as interim Dean. He presented Gardner, a longtime pilot and aviation enthusiast, with a desk clock made from a World War II Boeing Stearman radial engine piston.

Earlier in the evening, Alex J. Mechaber, M.D., Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Medical Education, talked about the medical students’ bright future. “The first thing I tell them before they walk into the ceremony is that we’re really proud of them and we want them to keep in touch with us,” he said. “Second, they’re really well trained. On the first day of internship people find out they are from the University of Miami, and they’re going to get called on to solve the most complex medical issues because they have that kind of training.

“And the third thing I tell them is that the Miller School of Medicine will always be their home.”

Christopher Dermarkarian, the president of the Class of 2017, is grateful for that home, and for the privilege of practicing medicine. He comes from a family of medical professionals and volunteered with emergency workers at the American Red Cross in middle school and high school. “I fell in love with the work you can do,” he said.

When it came time to choose a medical school after undergraduate work at Duke, Dermarkarian attended the Miller School’s “Second Look” event for admitted students. “I met a lot of the now first-year residents, who were one year ahead of us, and I fell in love with the culture and the people who were here,” he said. “I realized that this was the atmosphere I wanted to train in. That sealed it for me.”

Dermarkarian is headed to the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago for an internship in medicine, and then to the Cullen Eye Institute at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston for a residency in ophthalmology. He is excited about the future but truly sad about leaving the students, faculty and administrators with whom he has formed “everlasting relationships.”

“One of the strongest points of this school is without a doubt the people,” he said. “They push you to succeed, and they also provide a strong support system. I would never trade that for anything.”

A photo gallery of the commencement ceremony is available here.

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