By Bill Freeman
Graduation is a very special moment in our lives. Our hearts go out to those hard-working graduates whose celebrations have been cancelled or, at best, postponed, because of the coronavirus.
My dear friend Reverend Enoch Fuzz recently apprised me of the situation at Meharry Medical College. Like so many other schools encountering this disappointment, Meharry’s 2020 class of 86 graduates will be unable to attend or experience their traditional graduation ceremony. Due to COVID-19, there will be no cheering crowds, no families huddled around them in celebration, no walk across the stage to receive diplomas and no tasseled caps into the air. Students will still receive their actual degrees and diplomas, but celebrations arranged under coronavirus protocols certainly won’t measure up to the event envisioned by these students during their years of struggle, study and hard work.
Founded in 1876, Meharry was the first medical school in the South for African Americans. Today, it is the largest black academic health science center in the United States and boasts the highest percentage of African Americans graduating with PhDs in the biomedical sciences. The school’s mission to “serve the underserved” succeeds perpetually with 83 percent of their dental and medical alumni currently serving in underserved communities and investing approximately $30 million annually caring for those uninsured or impoverished. The school’s faith-based motto of “Worship of God Through Service to Mankind” inspires students and faculty to affect change.
Giving is the Meharry way, so the inability to provide a proper graduation celebration for this year’s graduates is particularly despairing.
Meharry graduate and Adjunct Faculty Professor of Internal Medicine Dr. Rachel Thomas says, “Being a physician is a privilege. It’s a calling from God to take care of people who are someone’s loved one. COVID-19 has shown only a
glimpse of what physicians and healthcare workers do on a daily basis. My medical students are very important to me because it is hard to pursue a dream when there is a mountain of debt, pressure, and so many fears. We tend to miss many family celebrations and funerals on this journey. These are the reasons why I want to celebrate this moment in these students’ lives. I pray they won’t allow COVID-19 or any circumstances in life take away the success they have achieved and the greatness they have been called for.”
I’m sure we all join Dr. Thomas in that sentiment.
Training to become a doctor takes years of time, commitment and endurance. There are also financial challenges, as indicated by the 87 percent of Meharrians who receive financial assistance. Yet they somehow find a way to stay the course.
Dr. Cecilia Jimenez had no guidance when starting out but entered a community college because, as she tells it, “I had no idea how to fill out the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) and complete applications for four-year colleges.” She stayed in community college while completing transfer courses – and also became a mother. Still, her desire to heal and serve helped her keep her resolve. As a Spanish-speaking Latina, she realized
many would look to her as an example. Her perseverance enabled her to reach her goal of being “the voice of change and inclusivity we need in medicine, as having representation is key to improving health outcomes.”
Dr. Nichelle Enata, President of the Class of 2020, was told she could not succeed as an orthopedic surgeon because she was a woman. The insult only inspired her to work harder and motivated her to continue. “My journey through medical school…taught me a lot about the field of medicine. It’s taught me even more about myself. I’m thankful for the opportunity to have trained at Meharry Medical College…but even more for the motivation I needed to achieve my dream.”
Dr. Miguel MCarpio, anesthesiologist and 2020 graduate, voiced an opinion echoed by many of his classmates, offering that it “takes a village” to reach our life’s goals. Like many, Miguel’s journey would have been impossible without the
love and support from his parents, siblings, classmates and mentors. But due to Covid-19, this same “village” of supporters will be denied the opportunity to join together in celebration with cheering, jovial hugs and handshakes.
Despite the lost festivities these students are the key to our communities being uplifted to create positive change. They hold the power to “shine brightly,” as was noted in former President Obama’s virtual commencement address to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). He added: “With everything suddenly feeling like its up for grabs this is your time to seize the initiative. More than ever this is your moment, your generations’ world to shape. In taking on this responsibility I hope you are bold. I hope you have a vision that isn’t clouded by cynicism or fear.”
Covid-19 has changed us in various ways, and it’s not over yet. It’s hard not to be discouraged by the things we can no longer do, especially when it means we’re unable to celebrate a loved one’s life-long dream achieved. But there are some things we can still do, including sending well wishes through social media, texts and phone calls. We can send a handwritten note or even put signs of congratulations in our windows. But whatever we do, let’s follow in the Meharry mission to affect change.
Let’s throw our virtual caps in the air and shout out to all we know, “Well done, Meharrians! Well done!”