The University of Mississippi Medical Center on Friday conferred degrees to hundreds of students who are beginning their careers in the health sciences, or entering into a new chapter of an existing one in this state and beyond.
The graduates of the schools of Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, Graduate Studies in the Health Sciences, Population Health, and Health Related Professions are leaving campus with the aim of improving health and quality of life. Of this year’s graduating class of 959 students, more than 700 walked across the stage in cap and gown to receive their diplomas in person.
“There are just four things I want you to take with you,” Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, told graduates.
“Today is a milestone. It is not the end. In fact, this is only the beginning of your learning process,” Woodward said. “As you go forward, you will learn from one another and you will learn from the greatest teachers of all: the patients.
“You will make choices every day that will impact others in a significant way. Deal with others and those you serve with a deep respect for our differences,” she said. “Choose respect. Choose kindness. Choose courage.
“Our nation will continue to struggle with ways to care for the sick. I challenge every one of you to be part of the solution to this struggle. In all things, leave it better than you found it.
“You will never practice any health profession well if you don’t have a good time doing it,” Woodward said. “The work before you is hard. It is important. It is heavy. And, it is rewarding and it is worth doing. Remember the excitement, the spirit, the passion you have today. Look for the joy. Have a good time.”
Dr. Glenn Boyce, chancellor of the University of Mississippi, told graduates that he’s confident they are well prepared for their next steps of training or for launching their careers as a health care provider or researcher.
“We’re especially grateful for this class of graduates who demonstrated perseverance and resilience during one of the most challenging periods in our nation’s history,” Boyce said. “You’ve reached this pinnacle and your educational goals through hard work, grit, and determination.
“And, I know you’ve done so with the steadfast support, and many times sacrifice, of your loved ones,” he said. “It is my honor to join you here today as we mark the culmination of years of study, sacrifice and diligent preparation, and the fulfillment of many lifelong dreams.”
Among those receiving degrees was 22-year-old Adia Knighten of Southaven, a graduate of the School of Nursing. Knighten said she knew she wanted to be a nurse when she was in early elementary school in Tunica.
“Babies run deep within my heart,” she said. “At first, I wanted to be a neonatologist, but now I’d like to work in obstetrics and gynecology, and in maternal medicine.”
Knighten went to Mississippi State University for two years, then was accepted at the School of Nursing for its “two plus two” Bachelor of Science in nursing program. She plans to take her licensing exams to become a registered nurse in July, then likely begin her nursing career in Mississippi.
She sought out UMMC for her nursing education “because there are a different array of things here that other hospitals in this state don’t have, like a Level IV NICU and a children’s hospital,” Knighten said. “My professors are so open and honest about the profession, and they are willing to give you all of the tools you need to succeed.”
Total degrees conferred include:
- School of Medicine, 160 graduates receiving the Doctor of Medicine degree.
- School of Dentistry, 60 graduates receiving either the Doctor of Dental Medicine degree or the Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene.
- School of Nursing, 430 graduates receiving either the Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Master of Science in Nursing, or Doctor of Nursing Practice.
- School of Graduate Studies in the Health Sciences, 122 graduates receiving either the Doctor of Philosophy or the Master of Science.
- School of Health Related Professions, 178 graduates receiving either the Doctor of Physical Therapy, Doctor of Occupational Therapy, or Doctor of Health Administration; Master of Occupational Therapy, Health Sciences, Health Informatics and Information Management, Magnetic Resonance Imaging or Nuclear Medicine Technology; or Bachelor of Science in Radiologic Sciences, Medical Laboratory Science, Health Sciences, or Health Informatics and Information Management.
- School of Population Health, 9 graduates receiving either the Master of Science in Biostatistics and Data Science, Population Health Science or Population Health Management.
The University of Mississippi in Oxford and UMMC together enrolled 21,856 students this school year, 3,056 at the Medical Center, and 18,800 at UM’s main and regional campuses.
Among those receiving accolades was Dr. David Brown, a professor in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology. He is the winner of the 2022 Regions TEACH Prize, given to the person who most represents the highest qualities of the Medical Center’s academic faculty.
New graduate Dr. Ezekiel Gonzalez-Fernandez matched for a neurology residency at UMMC, but it’s so much more than that. Gonzalez-Fernandez is one of three graduates who earned their combined MD-PhD, a track that takes seven years.
“It’s bridging research science with clinical medicine,” said Gonzalez-Fernandez, who had a career in finance before deciding to go to medical school at age 31. “I love being with patients and the physical patient interaction, but I love the process of discovery. The MD-PhD allows me to merge or marry my loves.”
Gonzalez-Fernandez will continue on a physician scientist track in the Department of Neurology, with a research interest in Alzheimer’s disease. “At UMMC, you have the opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond,” he said. “There’s so much support for individuals who want to do research.”
He’s lived in states including New York and California, but says Mississippi is where he wants to raise his family. “I am forever grateful to UMMC for giving me this opportunity,” Gonzalez-Fernandez said. “In my interview, they said, ‘How’d you feel about a seven-year program?’ I knew that the day I began it, I’d be doing what I love to do.”
The seven students who received top honors are:
- Michael Azar, Waller S. Leathers Award for the medical student with the highest academic average for four years;
- Martin Kelly, Wallace V. Mann Jr. Award for the dental student with the highest academic average for four years;
- Leslie Musshafen, John D. Bower Award to recognize exceptional potential in the field of population health;
- Avery Billingsley, Christine L. Oglevee Memorial Award for the outstanding School of Nursing baccalaureate graduate;
- Yashmen Evans, Richard N. Graves Award for the registered nurse deemed most outstanding by the faculty in clinical and overall performance;
- Sarah Cox, Dr. Virginia Stansel Tolbert award for the student with the highest academic average in the School of Health Related Professions;
- Carlos Zamarripa, Robert A. Mahaffey Jr. Memorial Award to recognize exceptional research potential of young investigators.