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Rosalind Franklin University Goes Virtual to Celebrate 106th Commencement

The time-honored tradition of conferring graduate degrees at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science pressed onward amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Friday, May 29, with a virtual commencement in lieu of ceremonies set aside by the state’s guidance against congregate settings.

More than 630 graduates in numerous biomedical and healthcare disciplines were invited to go online with their families, friends, instructors and mentors to participate in a video presentation on the university’s YouTube channel that included the formal awarding of degrees. 

RFU President and CEO Wendy Rheault welcomed the online gathering by noting that the school’s 106th commencement endured despite the pandemic and its many difficulties “because it embodies our care for one another and our faith in our mission of service, education and research.”

“RFU Class of 2020, you've earned a special place in our history,” Dr. Rheault added. “You are the first class to attend a virtual commencement ceremony — but more importantly, you are the first graduates since World War II to join the healthcare and biomedical professions at a time of global crisis. I know that you are all up to the challenge.”

Under normal circumstances, RFU’s commencement would have taken place at Credit Union 1 Arena on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus. Plans for a virtual event took shape as the RFU community joined residents across the state and nation in respecting efforts to flatten the curve in the battle against COVID-19.

Dr. Nancy Parsley, RFU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, joined Dr. Rheault in commending the graduates for completing their journey despite the extraordinary circumstances.

“Rosalind Franklin University, like institutions across the country, has had to make bold decisions over the past several months as the scope of the coronavirus pandemic has grown,” Dr. Parsley said. “At a time when you might have relaxed and enjoyed the tailwind of your many years of hard work and success, you instead have managed the stress of uncertainty and have stayed the course. You have modeled the reality of leadership: It’s not always easy to do what is right, to move forward with courage and vision in difficult times.”

The virtual event's keynote speaker was Dr. Michael Bleich, senior professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing, where he serves as director of the Langston Center for Innovation in Quality and Safety. A registered nurse, Dr. Bleich stressed the importance of connections between professions — a central tenet of RFU’s educational approach — as graduates move into the medical and research fields.

"While this pandemic blocks a fabulous opportunity to meet you face to face, we are still spirit-connected," said Dr. Bleich, adding that among differing professions, "there is still a connective tissue that binds us as we each find our niche in the world. Each program of study, each degree, reflects dedication to medicine in diagnosing, treating and exploring new diagnostic and treatment options."

Dr. Bleich also urged graduates, which included Doctor of Nursing Practice degree recipients, to follow the Florence Nightingale tradition of holistic care as they enter the frontlines of healthcare. He described how the legendary nurse wrote letters to families of dying soldiers during the Crimean War "to diminish the anguish of psychological fear and elevate spiritual well-being." 

"I firmly believe that every discipline in the fields that comprise medicine has providers who are caring and holistic by their individual nature," said Dr. Bleich, who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by RFU.

The focus and dedication required to fulfill academic commitments during the COVID-19 response — which included a shift to remote learning and a shutdown of the RFU campus to all but essential workers in mid-March — was highlighted by Chicago Medical School graduating student Riya Bhavsar, who reflected on the impact the pandemic response has had on traditions like being matched with medical residencies and saying farewell to classmates in person.

“I remember the heartbreak and tears I shed when I found out Match Day and commencement ceremonies were canceled. I was so upset at first, but out of that came the creativity to find innovative ways to celebrate,” Ms. Bhavsar said. “We had the first ever virtual Match Day. We had birthday parties over Zoom and meetings over Google Hangouts. And here we are today, scattered across the country, but together in this moment to celebrate this incredible milestone.”

Ms. Bhavsar added that “we are about to face healthcare during a pandemic, and though we may bring with us our fears, we also bring with us the courage to step up and do something. We have the power to affect so many lives, and I am proud of you all for the paths you have chosen.”

Dr. Joseph X. DiMario, dean of the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, spoke about the "societal need for educated individuals to lead the nation and its people” as he acknowledged that many RFU graduates will be joining the frontlines in biomedical research, healthcare and clinical settings.

"As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that research and critical thought by our citizen scholars and other world leaders will successfully meet this challenge," Dr. DiMario said. "Similarly, I am fully confident that you, as graduates of Rosalind Franklin University, will provide this thoughtful leadership."

Posted May 29, 2020
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