By Ashley Benkarski
NASHVILLE, TN — Meharry’s School of Dentistry gave its graduates an award ceremony that brought them together while staying safe during the pandemic with a parade of cars.
Masked school staff lined the outside of the campus cheering enthusiastically with hand-made signs and hearty claps as students drove up to receive their awards. Each graduate stopped to have their picture taken for posterity before staff placed the certificates in their backseat.
“In the midst of everything we thought it was important to try and come up with a way to celebrate them,” said Dean Cherae Farmer-Dixon, noting the students wanted to see their teachers and classmates one last time. Dr. Gerald Davis, II, Academic Dean for the School of Dentistry and 2011 alum, said the idea came from student officer and graduate David Gonzalez. “It turned into something so much more than a pick-up and drive-off,” he said.
While graduations are often bittersweet, this year’s grads have experienced a dramatic upset not just in the ceremony process but in the knowledge that the last day of school before the emergency closures was likely the last time classmates would see each other before scattering to pursue their futures.
Graduate Zelexis Morse, a native of Alexandria, Va., majored in biology at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C. and came to Nashville in 2015 to enroll in Meharry’s health sciences master’s program.
Asked about the unusual ceremony, Morse said it was like a breath of fresh air after quarantining for two months. “I actually enjoyed it, and it’s good to see everyone because we haven’t been able to see them and we’ve seen them for the past four years every day. COVID kind of took that from us. And now, we get to see them and it’s good because this may be the last time we actually see them.”
She intended to go into private practice in New York but stopped short amid the pandemic. “My plans kind of changed due to COVID,” Morse said, adding she’ll miss Meharry when she moves because of the bond she shares with her institution and classmates. “For them to put this together for us, it really shows they actually care about us.”
Morse thanked her family back home, her classmates that have become family and her roommate Michele who took her under her wing.
Jordan Pierre, a New Orleans native and Xavier University alum, said Nashville has been a great experience and plans to do more exploring in the next month before moving back home to start private practice. He and a few fellow grads pulled up in a black truck and, in true New Orleans fashion, tossed beads, coconuts and clappers as they drove through.
New Orleans has been hit hard by the pandemic, and Pierre relayed that seven of his family members have suffered through the virus and said it had taken several family friends.
But Pierre’s had a smile on his face throughout the entire event.
“I feel appreciated at this time. I mean, there’s nothing that can make up for an actual graduation because, in my opinion, the graduation isn’t really about us. While we do enjoy the moment, it’s about, really, our families,” Pierre said. “The beautiful thing about Meharry is you still have a lot of first-generation doctors, and while you have a lot of first-generation doctors you have a lot of legacy doctors too,” he added. “Just to let them see I put in the work, I’ve done all this studying, I made all the sacrifices and this is for y’all.” he expressed. “I appreciate this endlessly, because they didn’t have to do this at all … I really love my institution. This is the best institution, I believe, hands down.”
Dixon shared that sentiment, expressing pride in helping the students to achieve their dreams and make an impact. “They are Meharry-made,” she said. “They’re going to be good clinicians but more importantly they’re going to be healthcare professionals who are health caring.”
For Davis, it was hard to hold back emotions. “I feel connected to this class … To see them with family and friends driving through, it was touching.” Adding he’d only seen students through online platforms, Davis said he was glad to be able to watch the class transition from mentees to colleagues, making history again in spite of the virus. “Still being able to celebrate and not let that slow us down is pretty awesome,” he said.
The graduation commencement ceremony for the 2020 class was released at nine a.m. Sat., May 23 on YouTube Premiers.