After last year’s virtual graduation, 273 students gathered in person on May 15 for the Penn State College of Medicine graduation ceremony at the Hershey Lodge.
Families of the graduating students watched a livestream of the ceremony from a nearby room. Students heard from Penn State President Eric Barron, Interim College of Medicine Dean Dr. Kevin Black and keynote speaker Dr. Rachel Levine, who was a College of Medicine physician, Pennsylvania health secretary and is now assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Each gave the students words of encouragement and congratulated them on a momentous accomplishment that was achieved during a difficult time.
“This class has learned about medical care and research at an extraordinary and tragic time. They have used this experience to gain insights into the complex needs of patients and communities, particularly the most disadvantaged and vulnerable,” Black said. “My hope is that throughout their careers, they continue to be curious and make bold discoveries – and I am confident that they will.”
Prior to the ceremony, each student was tested for COVID-19, and their guests were able to practice social distancing as they watched the ceremony.
Graduates included 155 medical students, 85 graduate students and 33 students from the physician assistant program.
Focusing on family who got her here
One thing COVID-19 taught Erika Dahl was that you can turn your home into a research lab.
When the doctoral student’s laboratory at the College of Medicine closed during the pandemic, she packed up and took her research related to ovarian cancer back to Wyomissing with her.
“It was an interesting experience,” she said. “I think during COVID we all learned a lot about how to continue our work when things suddenly change. It is something I will remember from my time here.”
But on graduation day, as she walked across the stage to receive her diploma, she was more focused on the memories she carried of the people who helped her get there.
Dahl is the first person in her family to graduate from college, let alone receive a degree from a doctoral program. Her parents were excited to watch the event. Even though COVID meant the traditional ceremony when a faculty member places the doctoral hood over the head of the graduate did not happen, Dahl was able to graduate in person, which, she said, was an important moment for her.
“This is a big accomplishment not just for me but for my family,” she said. “I knew I would have that in the back of my mind all day.”
She joked that this will likely be her final graduation, noting her parents have been with her every step of the way, supporting all of her decisions to pursue higher education.
Dahl is already working in the life sciences field, and said she looks back and is thankful for all of the support she received from her peers, professors and parents.
“I was fortunate to have so many people pushing me and being great sounding boards for my work,” she said. “That will really stick with me.”
Knowing that helping one person can help others
At one point in her life, Maria Macias thought she might become a cabinet maker or learn some other trade.
She liked the idea after watching her father enjoy his masonry work. But something about the health care field kept drawing her attention.
Even though she says she didn’t gravitate toward science classes in high school, she graduated with a medical assistant license that she gained at her vocational technical school. It wasn’t until her last year in college – she graduated in three years -- that Macias started to think she wanted to become a physician assistant.
Now, having graduated from the College of Medicine’s physician assistant program, she knows she made the right decision. And her oversized family could not be prouder. Macias, whose family moved to the United States from Mexico, became the first person in her family to graduate in a medical field.
From the physician assistant program, she gained a curiosity about different aspects of medicine. She says she finds everything she learned interesting, but one area in particular has grabbed her attention.
“When we started to study infectious disease, I just fell in love,” she said. “It is exciting to know that if you treat one patient, you are treating others around them.”
She said she is appreciative of all the instructors in the program who helped her along the way and allowed her to get excited about becoming a physician assistant. Because she has been drawn to learning about infectious disease, studying during COVID-19 has given her real-world examples of her interest area.
Encouragement from her extended family – her father and mother each have eight siblings – has been her foundation as she has gone through the physician assistant program.
“My family said ‘do what you are passionate about,’” said Macias, whose home is in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. “They supported me all the way.”
That type of encouragement was not universal in her life, however. Guidance counselors in her past told Macias that going into a medical profession was going to be difficult for her, and she might want to think about other career avenues. She says her family, however, never wavered on believing in her and pushing her as she applied to the College of Medicine physician assistant (PA) program.
“I love that the PA profession can go into so many different areas and do so many interesting things,” she said. “I am excited about what I will do next.”
A passion for community service
For Jason Mascoe, graduating from medical school represents his next step toward caring for those who struggle the most but have the least support.
His passion for community service has already led him to work extensively with the homeless, at-risk teenage boys in the United States and those with minimal medical care in the country of Malawi.
“I see community involvement as a privilege,” he said. “If I forget to honor and prioritize that truth wherever I go, then my impact withers. A new degree may provide me access into a community. By sharing my life with my neighbor, I show I want to help, and it welcomes a seat to fellowship. That is where healing begins. For them and me."
For the last four years, Mascoe, who is from Long Island, New York, has been in the College of Medicine medical degree program. Unlike most of the students he graduated with, however, he completed his degree in the University Park Curriculum program. He said he is glad to have had that experience, because it meant smaller classes and more autonomy for academic experiences with individual attention from instructors.
Mascoe is grateful for the support he has received from his professors, not only in State College but in Hershey.
Mascoe took time off between college and medical school, signing up for church missionary work while holding numerous medical internships that exposed him to health care needs of urban homeless and refugee populations. It also helped him better understand the struggles of people with no health insurance.
He said he plans to focus on the underserved and overlooked.
“I have the experience of knowing how much need resides in the cracks of society,” he said. “In medicine, it is easy to forget if you're not intentionally involved.”
Mascoe said if he had gone straight to medical school after college, he would have had a different purpose.
“It would have been narrower and with less of a vision,” he said. “Now I understand so much more about how to proactively partner with the people I care for.”
A first-generation student whose parents came from Jamaica, Mascoe is the first person in his family to become a doctor. His parents, who attended his graduation, are proud of his medical school degree, just as they have been proud of his award-winning college volleyball career, the fact he is a published poet, mentors underrepresented STEM students and his numerous leadership roles at the College of Medicine.
Mascoe will soon begin his residency training at the University of Utah where he plans to focus on physical medicine and rehabilitation. Helping people to restore their function and regain their dignity goes along with his personal beliefs of helping people be healed physically, mentally and spiritually, he said.