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DPHS Graduation Ceremony DPHS Graduation Ceremony

Department of Public Health Sciences Hosts Virtual Celebration to Honor Graduates

At the end of each academic year, the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine hosts a graduation reception to celebrate recent graduates from the masters and doctoral programs.

But as COVID-19 began to emerge in the United States earlier this year, public health students, like other students across the nation, suddenly had to transition to online learning and face the postponement of graduation ceremonies and receptions.

Despite this, the Department of Public Health Sciences was dedicated to honoring their recent graduates. Spearheaded by the Public Health Student Association, Delta Omega Honor Society, and staff, a virtual celebration was held on May 21, during which graduates, their family and friends, students, faculty, and staff tuned in to celebrate. The event was filled with sharing compassion, service, and interconnectedness during very different times.

Nearly 45 students graduate this spring and summer with masters and doctoral degrees in public health, biostatistics, and prevention science and community health.

Congratulatory Graduation Video

A major highlight of the evening was a graduation video that debuted during the celebration.

“In past years, the department has hosted a graduation reception,” said David J. Lee, Ph.D., acting chair, professor and chair of graduate studies at the Miller School, during the virtual celebration. “This year, we offer a special gift for you — a video.

“There is something really special in it. With the exception of the introductory videos in the Gables campus, every video you will see here was recorded on handheld devices at home,” Dr. Lee added. “These videos were recorded with genuine, heartfelt willingness to celebrate with you today and to create this everlasting gift as a memory of something very special.”

The 25-minute video was conceived by students and staff and showcased congratulatory messages from students, faculty and staff, and end-of-the-year awards to students.

"I hope that you do not lose your inquisitiveness because we all need to continue to learn and improve. While you have earned a degree, you’re never done learning,” said WayWay M. Hlaing, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., M.S., a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences and one of many faculty members who recorded a video. “I also hope that you leave with pride toward this institution, with our enduring affection, and a standing invitation to stay connected. So, come back."

At the end of the video, beaming faculty and staff members said, “Congratulations. Felicidades.”

Adapting to Change and a Special Poem

Many students heeded the call to serve as volunteers in research in the University community, in local and/or national communities. Among other changes due to the pandemic this semester, they also completed their capstone thesis or independent studies by adapting their topics to address the emerging COVID-19 crisis. For the first time, students also did their thesis and doctoral defenses, as well as oral presentations, through Zoom.

“This has been an exercise in constant flexibility, adaptability and resiliency,” Dr. Lee said. “Our students saying yes to the profession that they chose, public health, which today is now a household phrase and of urgent importance, as it has always been.”

During the reception each year, Viviana Horigian, M.D., M.H.A., associate professor and director of public health education, reads a poem for graduates. This year, she read “Queda Prohibido” by Pablo Neruda, which she said was a poem shared with her by a public health colleague during the beginning stages of self-isolation.

In English, the title translates to “It is Forbidden,” reflecting the many ways in which students rose above the pandemic with flexibility, adaptability and resilience.

Lines of the poem read, “It is forbidden to cry without learning. To wake up one day, not knowing what to do. To be afraid of your memories. It is forbidden not to smile at problems, not to fight for what you want, to abandon everything because of fear, not to make your dreams come true.”

Expressions of Gratitude

Toward the end of the celebration, graduates, their family, and friends, as well as faculty and staff expressed their gratitude, not only for the celebration but to each other in their educational journey.

“I'm super excited and proud of all the graduates. Congratulations,” said Brenda Morris, parent to Kyana Morris, who graduated with an M.P.H. “I want to remind everybody to stay fearless and to stay loving as they continue on to this new journey. I'm so proud of Kyana. Thank you all.”

Among graduates who spoke was Aneesh Chandramouli, graduating with an M.S.P.H., who, besides being an excellent student, was known for being a superb teaching assistant.

“Thank you so much to everyone who made the video possible. All the faculty members, everyone in the Department of Public Health Sciences. It wouldn’t be possible without you," said Chandramouli. “Congrats to all my fellow students who are graduating with me today. This is a celebration for us all.”

Chandramouli also emphasized the importance of legacies.

“Our books are still being written, and they’re not done,” he said. “Each day, each week, each month, whatever unit of time, it’s a chance for us to build upon our legacies. I’m certainly not done building mine, and I hope neither you.”

Renae Schmidt, graduating with an M.P.H., who served as vice president of social media for the Public Health Student Association, also expressed her gratitude. This semester, Schmidt spearheaded a virtual campaign during National Public Health Week in April, where public health professionals in the community expressed the importance of public health, among other important topics within the field.

“I’ve had such an incredible time in the past two years with my classmates and friends, and I really am lucky to say that I’ve gained so much life and so much experience,” Schmidt said. “I’ve learned from so many faculty, students and staff as mentors and role models. Miami has really become an incredible home for me.”

Now a double UM alumna, Khaila Prather, graduating with an M.P.H. as part of the 4+1 Bachelor of Science in Public Health and Master of Public Health Program, expressed that even in the midst of the pandemic, the Class of 2020 rose above and beyond the challenges they faced.

“I want to first and foremost say congratulations to the Class of 2020. We did it, even in the midst of a pandemic. I’m so honored to have been a part of the program and to have met so many wonderful people,” Prather said. “I want to give a major shout out to my family and friends. I could not have done it without you. You always gave me the encouragement and support that I needed. And as we go through on our journeys, always know it’s all about the U.”

Written by Amanda Torres
Published on June 3, 2020