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Rosalind Franklin University’s 107th Commencement Features Address by Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike

Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science conferred more than 630 graduate degrees in numerous health and biomedical sciences during a virtual commencement ceremony on June 12. President and CEO Dr. Wendy Rheault noted the necessity of the university’s second consecutive virtual commencement amid a pandemic the nation and world are still struggling to control. 

“You, graduates, will have a hand in making that happen,” Dr. Rheault said. “RFU has prepared you for this challenge, as you join teams that work across disciplines to defeat COVID-19 and advance systems of care and biomedical research.”

The 107th Commencement Ceremony also included remarks from Provost Nancy Parsley and a Graduate Address from Kenneth Furlough, MD ’21, a 2016-17 Franklin Fellow. An honorary Doctor of Humane Letters was presented to Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike, MD, who has guided the state’s coronavirus response. The state entered the final Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois Plan on the day before commencement with all sectors of the economy reopening.

In her keynote remarks, Dr. Ezike acknowledged the intense challenges faced by the Class of 2021 and the entire university as it focused on its mission of education, research and service “despite the social, political and health upheaval we all bore witness to over the past year.”

Calling racism “an ongoing pandemic that requires all of us to control and end it,” she asked graduates to confront their unconscious and implicit bias, which can harm their patients. She also encouraged students to take care of themselves and bring their humanity to their work.

“I have learned and am still learning that change, even in the midst of a crisis, can take a personal toll on you, and that prioritizing time for self care is as critical as prioritizing the issues and tasks of the moment,” said Dr. Ezike, who discussed the intense pressures wrought by the pandemic on public health workers across the nation. 

During a daily COVID press briefing in October, 2020, Dr. Ezike was overcome with emotion as she read aloud updated state death and infection statistics. The unscripted moment quickly went viral. 

“I was horrified,” Dr. Ezike said. But her tears resonated with a grieving public.

“Seven months later, it stands as that seminal moment that best defines who I am: a caring mother, wife, daughter, physician, leader,” said Dr. Ezike, the second woman and first black woman appointed to the state’s top public health post. “The lesson was and remains that we can bring our humanity to all the work that we do. You don’t have to check it at the door. It may make things complicated, definitely more colorful, and 100% authentic.”

“Your patients want to know that you are a real person and that you care and that you feel, just like they do,” Dr. Ezike said. “Medicine will cause you to give of your physical time, but also pull on your heart. And showing empathy and care for your patients can and will take a toll. So take time to decompress, recalibrate and reprioritize. Find what restores you and make time — even as an overworked intern — make time to refill and refresh your cup. You have earned a position of great esteem, and it’s an incredible honor and a privilege — and you need to guard it appropriately.

“Congratulations for achieving your dreams in the midst of a global pandemic,” Dr. Ezike told students. “May every place you venture into find itself better off for your having been there.”

Dr. Furlough grew up on Chicago’s South Side, mentored students in Chicago public schools and founded a non-profit dedicated to financial literacy, career development and wellness in support of young athletes from underprivileged backgrounds. 

“I saw in my community how social determinants impacted health outcomes and differences in life expectancy,” said Dr. Furlough, a graduate of Georgetown University, who is headed to a residency in orthopaedic surgery at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Dr. Furlough quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase” — in urging fellow graduates to move forward in the face of uncertainties posed by the pandemic.

“Those times when we doubt ourselves as young health professionals in a new environment — stay focused and take the first step,” he said. “Regardless of what we will face in the days to come, we are fortunate to live in a period of history where change is commonplace and authenticity is respected. What better time to exist to become innovators and the builders of equity in order to promote a healthcare system built upon justice.”

Dr. Parsley lauded graduates for their tenacity and empathy.

“Your resilience has been an inspiration,” she said. “You also demonstrated how we must nurture the relationships that sustain us, especially in times of hardship and challenge. I invite you to stay connected to the classmates and mentors whose care and friendship helped bring you to this moment.

“Never forget that Rosalind Franklin University and our network of more than 20,000 alumni stand behind you and believe in you.”

Posted June 12, 2021
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