The University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) celebrated Commencement in a fitting way this year, as its seven schools mixed virtual events and small, in-person gatherings to honor a Class of 2021 that has persevered to graduate amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On the Universitywide level, the theme was clear: Many of us have been apart for much of the past 14 months, but UMB always comes together to improve the human condition and serve the public good.
Rather than leading the annual Universitywide ceremony at Royal Farms Arena, canceled for the second year in a row because of COVID-19 safety protocols, UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, donned his graduation regalia and spoke from Leadership Hall in the Medical School Teaching Facility as the centerpiece of a 17½-minute video released May 20 to celebrate the Class of 2021.
(Watch video above and see more Commencement coverage.)
“It is certainly unfortunate that you’re not walking across that stage today,” Jarrell said in addressing the graduates. “I feel your pain, to not be here in person to receive your diploma. But it’s not the act of walking across that stage that defines you or your career. That is just one more step in your career, the end of one more chapter. I’m sure and confident that your studies have prepared you to go forth and write that next chapter.
“Our Maryland community and the world could not be more ready for you to get started. The challenges that we face are daunting, but I’m confident that you will face them head-on with confidence in your abilities, and with an eye toward the future. The entire UMB family, your families, and the state of Maryland are very proud of you and your accomplishments.”
Before Jarrell spoke, members of a Lutherville, Md., family — Swiatoslaw Kuznik, Aneta Otreba, and their son, Mark Kuznik — performed “Pomp and Circumstance: March No. 1” with cello and violins inside Health Sciences Research Facility III. After Jarrell spoke, members of the Hippocratic Notes, an a cappella group from the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), sang the national anthem while physically distanced and standing in front of historic Davidge Hall.
Greetings from Governor and Chancellor
Next up was Gov. Larry Hogan, who extended congratulations on behalf of the state of Maryland as “you begin the next exciting chapter of your lives.”
“When history looks back on this year’s graduates, you will often be remembered for your earning your degree in the shadow of a global pandemic,” he said. “Normal life came to a screeching halt over the past year and forced all of us to pause and reflect on the things that truly matter. Staying apart from friends and family reminded us how much we depend on and need each other to get through the hard times.
“Fortunately, now we are so close to that light at the end of the tunnel when we can put this pandemic behind us. And while we know that we can never reclaim the time we’ve lost, I hope that as you graduate today, you remember that each of us can make the days ahead count that much more.”
Jarrell introduced a video presentation from Jay A. Perman, MD, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, who noted it was “so nice to be home again,” alluding to his nearly 10-year tenure as UMB president before Jarrell assumed the office in 2020.
“I know that nothing you’ve endured throughout this COVID year has been easy,” Perman told the graduates. “Given the incredible challenges and uncertainty you faced, I’m awed by your persistence and flexibility, your grit and determination. What you’ve accomplished this year, of all years, is amazing, and I know that the same qualities that got you through these months of turbulence will propel you through a lifetime of work that truly makes a difference.
“A crisis like this is a crucible that tests you but also gives you your greatest reward. And that reward is the knowledge that you are who we need — leaders with your talent, your skill, your character, your compassion.”
Resilience and Inspiration
Nivedita Hegdekar, MSL, president of the University Student Government Association, a student in the University of Maryland Graduate School, and a Class of 2021 graduate of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, praised graduates for their resilience in the face of COVID-19.
“You navigated the hurdles of online learning, multiple Zoom meetings, online finals, personal hardships, and so much more,” she said. “These were challenges that none of you signed up for, yet you persevered and succeeded. You not only showed personal resilience, compassion, and strength of character, but you also supported one another and the UMB community.
“The Class of 2021 proved that through hard times, you can still complete your education and follow your dreams. You inspire all of us.”
The presentation ended with a five-minute video recapping UMB’s response and recovery efforts as the University adjusted to a “new normal” starting in March 2020 when the pandemic unfolded: the switch to telework, volunteers sewing face masks to support hospital personnel, the Food for Our Front Lines campaign that provided free meals to front-line workers, the Community Engagement Center giving food and support to West Baltimore families, and the comprehensive efforts to test for the virus, conduct vaccine trials, and distribute vaccines.
The video ended with inspirational words about UMB and its response to the pandemic:
“We adapted. We overcame. And what changed as a result of COVID-19 has only made UMB stronger and more efficient. There is no going back to the way things were. We’re beyond that. We will keep moving forward, assured that what we’ve achieved has only made us more focused and more dedicated than ever to our mission. Together, we will continue to persevere. Together, we will always adapt. Together, we will never give up.
“UMB … together.”
Elsewhere around the University:
School of Dentistry
Doctor of Dental Surgery graduates at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry walked across a stage May 21 to be hooded, physically distanced but still together. While no guests could join them, the occasion was livestreamed and then posted online.
Dean Mark A. Reynolds, DDS, PhD, MA, marveled at the nimbleness the graduates had exhibited during the past year.
“This ceremony marks the graduation of a class whose members have shown remarkable tenacity and resilience,” Reynolds said. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our seniors have demonstrated great flexibility and adaptability whether studying remotely, conducting novel research, performing online community service, or excelling in patient care.”
The school also produced an hourlong video of its honors convocation that included remarks from Reynolds, Alumni Association Board of Directors president Shari Kohn, DDS ’90; Board of Visitors chair Melvin Kushner, DDS ’66; Student Government Association president Sahar Nesvaderani, DDS, MS, and others.
“I think it’s wrong to say we lost anything at all, really, because of the pandemic. We just had to shift in a different direction, learn to adapt to unexpected change, and test our resilience,” Nesvaderani said. “As creatures of habit, we’re wired to face adversity by doing what has always been done, rather than taking a different approach.
“Class of 2021, you are the product of a different approach, which is why I know we are one of the strongest graduating classes of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry.”
Francis King Carey School of Law
The Francis King Carey School of Law celebrated its graduates with an online video and virtual hooding ceremony and is hoping to hold an in-person event during the summer. It also held a post-hooding Zoom celebration for graduates and launched an online yearbook.
“To the great Class of 2021, I want you to know that I have never been prouder to be dean of this law school — and you are the reason,” said Dean Donald B. Tobin, JD. “Your lives and legal educations were disrupted by a global pandemic, but throughout these trying times you have demonstrated remarkable perseverance and adaptability, which will serve you well in your careers.”
The ceremony featured remarks from three professors as well as Edward Healy, JD, Evening Program class president, and Rebecca Carlone, JD, Day Program class president.
Donald Gifford, JD, the Jacob A. France Professor of Torts, noted that this class persevered not only through a pandemic, but also during a national reckoning on racial injustice and tumultuous times in Washington, D.C., with two presidential impeachments and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“We could have never anticipated how much the world would change during your time in law school and how these changes would affect you,” Gifford said. “You attended law school during times more unsettling, more polarizing than any in the history of this institution. And just as the critical needs in our society forced the law to change, to move toward the arc of justice, you as students could not ignore what went on in the world around you.
“Your attending law school during these peculiar times has made you better persons of the law. These events made you realize that our nation is not done changing, and neither are you. In fact, you are just at the start of your growth as a professional. We all strive together to be part of a more perfect union, but now you realize that you, too, are still striving to become a more perfect advocate for justice.”
Brooke Kasoff, JD, said finishing law school during a pandemic was “definitely a challenge. It was difficult sitting at home, doing everything from home — school, classes, studying late at night, and not having the law library. But I’m so grateful that we made it to the end.”
In a prerecorded ceremony for its doctoral degree recipients, the Graduate School dedicated an hour-plus video to personal messages from graduates’ mentors, giving viewers a chance to learn about their detailed research and accomplishments.
Gerardo R. Vasta, PhD, professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UMSOM, introduced the first graduate, Kelsey Abernathy, PhD, whose research focused on the opposite roles of zebrafish galectins in attachment and infection by the infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus. She graduated with a doctoral degree in Marine, Estuarine, and Environmental science, and Vasta noted that she multitasked by supervising student interns in the laboratory, serving as a teaching assistant, and co-founding the startup company AlgenAir.
“Kelsey has been a dedicated and hardworking member of our research team and is known to everyone as a committed team player,” Vasta said. “These findings are highly relevant to how viruses have evolved to subvert the immune defenses of the host. It will open new evidence for interventions of viral disease not only in aquaculture but also in veterinary and human medicine.”
School of Medicine
UMSOM’s virtual celebration was livestreamed May 20 on YouTube and included remarks from Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA; Cynthia L. Egan, chair of the UMSOM Board of Visitors; Mohan Suntha, MD, MBA, president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System; and Victor J. Dzau, MD, president of the National Academy of Medicine, vice chair of the National Research Council, and Chancellor Emeritus and James B. Duke Professor of Medicine at Duke University.
“Graduating from medical school is a real accomplishment at any time, but, of course, this is not just any time,” Dzau said in his keynote address. “You did this hard work in the middle of a global pandemic, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in 100 years. That is truly impressive and memorable.
“You are embarking on a career in health and medicine at one of the most eventful times in recent history, with society being rocked by existing existential threats: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and an awakening to centuries of systemic racism. As doctors and researchers, you will be at the heart of finding solutions to these crises.”
Reece said it would have been hard to imagine a year ago that UMSOM would be celebrating graduation again in a virtual format.
“We have come a long way in the fight against this pandemic,” he said. “The nation’s and indeed this institution’s clinicians and researchers have taken the brunt of the storm. I’m confident that this talented and socially conscious class is well-equipped and fully armored to join the rank of the physicians and physician-scientists on the front lines.”
The event also featured graduate Autusa Pahlavan, MD, winner of the Faculty Gold Medal for Outstanding Qualifications for the Practice of Medicine and the Balder Scholarship Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement. In her remarks, she said she was inspired by the way her classmates mobilized to combat COVID-19 by volunteering in hospitals and the community.
“It is clear that the members of this class are ready to handle the challenges of a career in medicine and will undoubtedly have a positive impact in the communities they serve,” she said. “I also want to express my gratitude for the enriching experience the School of Medicine has provided. We have been so fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful physicians and mentors who are role models for how to provide compassionate, clinically excellent care and to advocate for our patients.”
School of Nursing
In a virtual ceremony May 20, Jane M. Kirschling, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Bill and Joanne Conway Dean of the University of Maryland School of Nursing (UMSON), recognized the extraordinary dedication of the graduates whose time at UMSON was capped by the pandemic, noting that some chose an early-exit option or volunteered in other capacities to immediately help the front-line needs brought on by COVID-19.
Kirschling said the graduates had her “deepest respect” for their efforts in balancing school, work, families, and the pandemic.
“The events of the past 14 months, our national and global struggles to combat COVID-19 give additional meaning to this dedication,” Kirschling said during a virtual ceremony that combined live and prerecorded remarks. “It is a reminder that nursing does not have the opportunity to pick and choose its moments of service, but rather it must always be on the ready to respond.”
Student speaker and Doctor of Nurse Practice graduate Henry Eromosele Inegbenosun, BSN, RN, DNP, echoed the dean’s remarks about graduating during a pandemic.
“Every crisis has its heroes. Firefighters race into burning buildings. Soldiers and police officers place themselves in the line of fire. During times of fear and uncertainty, the world called, and nursing answered,” he said.
Eromosele Inegbenosun also told his fellow graduates to remember the journey during these tumultuous times both before and during the pandemic, with some leaving families, others leaving jobs behind, and many experiencing hardships to make their education possible, including himself.
“Not many little boys from Lagos, Nigeria, have the opportunity to reach what I have accomplished today: a Doctor of Nurse Practice degree as a family nurse practitioner,” he said. “Throughout my program, I had to consider various life decisions: contemplating if I should pay for rent, put food on the table, or pay for school. But with the passion for knowledge and the love of wisdom, my nursing education won every time. I overcame the social determinants most only considered in theory.”
School of Pharmacy
After an emotional year, the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy (UMSOP) sent its graduates off on a high note with a series of inspiring speeches during its May 21 celebration with prerecorded remarks livestreamed and then posted online.
Dean Natalie D. Eddington, PhD, FAAPS, FCP, lifted graduates up, saying how much they will be needed going forward.
“My advice during this unprecedented time in the world is to continue to focus on what is important to you,” Eddington said. “To be leaders who challenge the status quo approach and contribute to the greater good; to be optimistic and to use your knowledge, skills, and passion to drive innovation and change; to recognize all that you have to offer and that you begin your career at a time when your skills and your expertise are sorely needed.”
University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, PhD, MA, served as the keynote speaker, telling UMSOP graduates: “Don’t limit yourselves. Dream of the possibilities.”
Hrabowski also advised graduates to “know yourself well.”
“Know your level of tolerance for risk, for example. Know that the first job you get won’t be your last job. Understand that the experiences you’ve had have made you stronger than you ever have before,” he said. “That this as a commencement is just the beginning. Most important: Don’t let anyone else define who you are. Be proud of what you have accomplished and take each day to improve.”
School of Social Work
The University of Maryland School of Social Work released an online graduation video and conducted an outdoor hooding ceremony May 21 to celebrate its Class of 2021. In the video, Judy L. Postmus, PhD, ACSW, presiding over her first graduation as dean, praised the graduates for being “persistent, relentless, and passionate in pursuit of your master’s or doctoral degrees.”
“All of our graduates need to be recognized for the incredible efforts they had to invest just to come this far during the turbulent times of a pandemic and increasing racial and social injustice,” Postmus said. “I stand before you today amazed at how much you have accomplished.
“A good portion of your education was completed online and in unique circumstances. You persevered through all obstacles. You were not only a student, but most likely also a parent, a caregiver, a home-school teacher … and maybe you felt alone, depressed, anxious, and scared, all at the same time. Knowing this, I hope you do not feel like you earned less of a degree. On the contrary, your degree is a great symbol of overcoming and enduring and achieving.”
Alumnus Lori James-Townes, LCSW-C, MSW ’91, president and CEO of Expand-Now LLC and executive director of the National Association of Public Defense, was the keynote speaker, and graduate Mavlyn Bazil, MSW, delivered a speech with this message: Social workers are essential.
“Social workers feed the hungry by educating communities about the importance of the food they eat, empowering them to protect their right to food and providing meaningful interventions to vulnerable populations,” said Bazil, who earned her master’s degree after serving in the Army. “Social workers fight for the rights of others and work to obtain resources by convincing policymakers of the legitimate needs of community members. Above all, social workers challenge all forms of discrimination.
“I look forward to the changes I’m going to make in the lives of women who have experienced different forms of sexual violence,” she added. “I particularly look forward to one day being able to institute or update policies that will benefit survivors of any form of sexual violence.”
Laura Lee contributed to this article.