Press Release

Keck school commencement speakers stress need for bold action on health care challenges ahead

Graduation ceremonies mark the start of a new chapter for Keck School of Medicine’s Class of 2023

Jeremy Deutchman May 16, 2023
Keck School of Medicine graduates walk in for commencement ceremony.
Stepping into the future with pride and determination, the graduates of the Class of 2023, Keck School of Medicine, make their entrance into Galen Center for their momentous Commencement ceremony. (Photo: Greg Grudt)

It was a weekend for joy and reflection at the Keck School of Medicine, as graduating students – surrounded by faculty, family and friends – gathered together to celebrate their academic accomplishments and consider what lies ahead. This year’s commencement ceremonies, which took place on May 12 and 13, welcomed new members to the ranks of USC alumni and charged them with using their hard-earned degrees to strengthen the health of diverse global communities.

“You all are tomorrow’s leaders in medicine. Actually, you are today’s leaders,” said Carolyn Meltzer, MD, dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, to the students graduating from the MD program. “The needs are here and now. The urgency is palpable. We need you to step forward in your communities, to be bold and fearless in your compassion and to be advocates for health equity and a healthier future for all people.”

Up first was the Physician Assistant (PA) program ceremony, which inducted graduates into what Mitzi D’Aquila, director of the Primary Care Physician Assistant Program, proudly pointed out “is currently the fastest growing profession in the United States.” Dawn Morton-Rias, EdD, president of the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, welcomed graduates who would be joining the ranks of  “the close to 170,000 board-certified PAs” currently practicing. The ceremony served as both a recognition of graduates’ achievements and an opportunity for them to reflect on the many lessons they had absorbed while pursuing their degree.

“During the clinical year, we got comfortable with being uncomfortable. We learned to approach life with flexibility, grace and compassion,” said Tenzing Sherpa, the Class of 2023 speaker. Above all else, he continued, “We learned being a PA means harmonizing the role of clinician, teacher and advocate” to advance the greater good.

Keck School Student, Class of 2023 celebrate Commencement day.
Radiating joy and accomplishment, the Keck School of Medicine graduates celebrate their Commencement. (Photo: Greg Grudt)

At the ceremony for Keck School of Medicine’s undergraduates, Heather Wipfli, PhD, director of the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and Global Health Programs congratulated students for their accomplishments. “I know I speak for all our faculty and staff when I say that working with this diverse group of accomplished, dedicated, energetic and fun young people has been an honor and a pleasure,” Wipfli said.

Barbara Ferrer, PhD, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, then encouraged the degree candidates to channel their learning in pursuit of equitable health outcomes for all.

“As excellent as your training has been and will be, the struggle for justice demands that we commit to continuous reflection in the quest for deeper understanding,” said Ferrer. “A commitment to learning with and from each other makes it possible for us to innovate, chart new paths and take bold action.”

Graduate students receiving diplomas from the Keck School’s master’s degree programs, doctoral program and program in nurse anesthesia heard from two students: Bohdana Briantseva, a master’s candidate for the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Program, and Helena Bugacov, a doctor of philosophy candidate in the Development, Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Program. They were followed by keynote speaker Peter Kraft, PhD, a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute and director of the Transdivisional Research Program in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, who applauded students’ dedication and perseverance in the face of obstacles presented by COVID-19 and pointed to the invaluable experience they gained by studying the pandemic in real time.

“The pandemic illustrated how health science researchers and practitioners can tackle a new disease, quickly understanding its biology and developing and deploying new treatments with amazing speed,” he said.

That combination of flexibility and understanding, noted Dean Meltzer, will be instrumental in accelerating the pace of scientific progress and increasing graduates’ impact throughout their careers.

“As you leave the campus today, I hope you will take with you the commitments that we at the Keck School have tried to embody daily: a dedication to saving lives and improving the quality of life for all people; a drive to advance biomedical research; and a lifelong commitment to education and to community,” she said. “Thanks in no small part to your hard work and dedication, today the Keck School is in a position of research dynamism and renewed strength, with our discovery programs taking giant leaps forward in scientific innovation.”

A commencement ceremony for members of the inaugural cohort of the Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology Program culminated years of planning by faculty and staff to get the program up and running. “I know all of us have had dreams and visions of this day for a long time. Sometimes those dreams were what kept us going,” said Program Director Barbara Moore, EdD.

Keynote speaker Elizabeth Peña, PhD, associate dean of faculty development and diversity at the University of California, Irvine School of Education, congratulated students on joining “a profession that focuses on what makes us human: the study of communication and communication impairment.” With their newfound knowledge and skills, she commented, they are now equipped to make a difference in the wider world.

“In speech-language pathology, the intersection between race, ethnicity, bilingualism and neurodiversity leads us to ask questions about what we can do, why we do it and how we can do it better,” she said.

“Whatever you do in your lifetimes, always keep the patient front of mind,” counseled Kimberly Manning, MD, keynote speaker and general internist/hospitalist who currently serves as associate vice chair of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Department of Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. She said remembering people are at the heart of what motivates physicians to heal will be central to the students’ effectiveness as medical professionals.

During the MD ceremony, graduates also received a benediction from Varun Soni, PhD, dean of religious life at USC, who urged them to embrace the future and to carry the spirit of the Keck School with them wherever their paths may lead. “As you embark upon your new adventure, may you go with peace and prosperity, may you go with blessing and inspiration, may you go with love and joy and may you forever Fight On,” he said.