HERSHEY, Pa. — On May 17, 234 students celebrated two historic milestones in their lives – they marked the end of rigorous years of study by graduating from Penn State College of Medicine, and they were the first class to do so virtually, due to COVID-19 restrictions.
At 1 p.m., students at home across the country logged in to watch the livestreamed ceremony. Penn State President Eric Barron; Interim Dean Dr. Kevin Black; and keynote speaker Dr. Valerie Williams, vice provost for academic affairs and faculty development at the University of Oklahoma, shared words of wisdom, along with each class’s student speaker.
Prior to commencement, each graduate received a special delivery in the mail – a care box filled with mementos, including a banner, program book, a Penn State Alumni Association lapel pin and a video greeting from Black and other academic influencers.
Graduates included 139 medical students, 66 graduate students and 29 students from the physician assistant program.
Making family history, at home
Brad Staten’s family had long ago planned the trip from Iowa to Hershey to celebrate their pioneering son — the first person in their family to go to college, let alone graduate from medical school.
“I’m not one to celebrate much, but this was going to be huge — first-generation graduate, breaking barriers,” said Staten, who originally came to Penn State College of Medicine for its doctoral program in anatomy and then switched into the Physician Assistant program. “When I forwarded my mom the email from the dean about commencement being online, she sent back a crying emoji.”
But if there’s one thing Staten said he learned while serving in active combat with the Marine Corps after high school, it’s that adaptability to the current situation is crucial.
“Life is what you make of it, and the College of Medicine did so much for us to still make it exciting and to lift our morale,” said Staten, who served in Afghanistan. “Perhaps this will be the one year in history when college commencements had to be cancelled, and I’ll be able to say I was part of it.”
In July, Staten will begin his job at a neurosurgery practice in Quincy, Illinois, working with Dr. Brian Anderson, whom he met at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center when Anderson was a chief resident in neurosurgery and invited Staten to shadow him.
Staten’s road to becoming a physician assistant was marked by several detours — including a stint as a researcher at NASA where he studied the cerebral spinal fluid shift in mice in the U.S. space station vs. on Earth — but he’s sure he’s landed right where he should be.
On Sunday, Staten sat in the living room of his childhood home, dressed in a cap and gown, for his virtual graduation. His grandparents didn’t attend because of COVID-19 concerns, the reality of which hit home when Staten’s father got a phone call during the ceremony — which he didn’t pick up at the time. He later learned his sister (Brad’s aunt) was in the emergency room with difficulty breathing due to COVID-19.
As someone who knows what it’s like to be on the front lines of war, Staten affirms the similarities drawn to health care workers fighting COVID-19.
“It’s apples to oranges in one way,” he said, “But in both cases, it’s someone putting their life on the line to better life for someone else.”
Celebrating with a best friend
In Palo Alto, California, graduate student Robert Nwokonko graduated by sitting in his backyard with his dog, Kona, by his side, laptop in hand.
“It’s not what I pictured — I was planning on flying back to Pennsylvania to celebrate with my family and my friends,” said the Downingtown, Pennsylvania, native, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. “It would have been awesome, but I’m still proud and happy about everything I learned there and where I am now.”
Nwokonko appreciated the unexpected care package he received, especially the video card and Hershey chocolate bar. “It was impressive with a small movie screen embedded in it and remarks from the dean,” he said. “I especially enjoyed the chocolate since I haven’t left the house in a while.”
The biomedical science graduate student, who worked in a College of Medicine lab studying calcium signaling in cells, was competitively selected in 2018 for the rare chance to hear from some of the world’s most lauded scientists at the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany.
At Stanford, Nwokonko is studying a technique called cryogenic electron microscopy, which allows researchers to freeze cells and take high-resolution images using an electron microscope. Nwokonko can look at the structure of different protein receptors in the brain that help with communication between neurons to develop drugs for diseases associated with malfunction.
“I am glad I finished my thesis early and locked in my position here before COVID happened,” he said. “Everything feels sort of surreal since then.”
He was in the midst of applying for grants to fund his research when the virus shut down his lab. “My applications won’t be as strong without preliminary data from the research I can’t do,” he said. “I am hoping the application deadlines will be extended.”
One day, Nwokonko said, he hopes to return to Pennsylvania to teach at Penn State or the College of Medicine.
Gearing up to face the challenge
For as long as she can remember, Sejal Shah was passionate about two things — helping others and science — so combining the two to become a doctor made perfect sense.
“What really made Penn State College of Medicine stand out among the rest was its humanities program,” said the Wheeling, Illinois, native. “A focused humanistic approach to medicine aligns with how I want to practice.”
Four challenging and rewarding years later, Shah was set to celebrate graduation with the community of friends who faced those long hours of studying for exams and those first-time clinical jitters together.
“I am most disappointed that I won’t be able to say goodbye to my classmates before we all head our separate ways, but the silver lining is I got to spend a month at home before I start residency,” said Shah, who will be back in Hershey after graduation to begin a year of preliminary general surgery residency at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
On Sunday, she and her parents celebrated at the home of her brother, Sanjit, a neurosurgical resident at University of Cincinnati. He dressed in his regalia and hooded her. About 20 extended family members attended via Zoom.
“It was humbling to have so many of the people who helped me along the way share in the day after all,” she said. “The virus is so much bigger than anyone expected, but it doesn’t take away from our achievements of the past four years.”
Shah said she is a little apprehensive but excited to get back to Hershey Medical Center, which she knows will look much different than when she was last there in March.
“When you go into medicine, you’re assuming a certain amount of risk, but of course, who would have imagined a pandemic like this?” she said. “I hope that what comes out of it is that we’ll be better prepared if anything like this comes around again.”