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Commencement 2019: Celebrating achievement, still moving forward


Keynote speaker Dr. Abdul El-Sayed

Ann Arbor, Mich., May 14, 2019 -– The world needs more empathy. Setting goals, one after another, can lead to remarkable achievements. Earning a degree is just the beginning of a person’s educational journey. Flexibility and the ability to change are essential to success.

Those were some of the messages delivered to graduates Friday during commencement at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. The school presented 123 Doctor of Dental Surgery degrees, 37 Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene degrees, two Doctor of Philosophy in Oral Health Sciences degrees and 40 Master of Science degrees in Dental Hygiene, Endodontics, Orthodontics, Pediatric Dentistry, Periodontics, Prosthodontics and Restorative Dentistry.

Dean Laurie McCauley told the 2019 graduates that the school’s challenging curriculum has prepared them for the wide-ranging and often complex dental procedures they will face in their careers. “You have proven that you possess the knowledge, technical skills and the ability to make the human connections essential to the practice of dentistry and dental hygiene,” she said. “It is important to remember, however, that we have encouraged you to think independently, embrace different viewpoints and develop alternative strategies for whatever problems you encounter. That may be the most important skill you have learned – flexibility. Albert Einstein noted that the measure of intelligence is the ability to change. As you embark on your admirable quest to improve the oral health of the world, rely on the foundation you gained here, but rely even more on your unique inner drive that has already proven that you are among the leaders and best.”


Dental Hygiene Senior Class President
Brenna Slovak leads applause for
faculty, staff, family and friends
who helped the class.
Keynote speaker Dr. Abdul El-Sayed focused on empathy in his address. A physician, epidemiologist and public health expert who ran for Governor of Michigan in 2018, El-Sayed said technology and the tools available to dentists and other healthcare providers have advanced immensely in recent decades. What hasn’t changed is the need to connect closely with patients and their needs. “They come to you believing that you’re going to listen, that you are going to care. And they believe that you can make their pain go away,” he said. “That part -– that’s the same for every oral health professional who has ever practiced before you. That has not changed.”

Nor has the need for dentists to listen and empathize. “That ability to listen to someone in pain -– it has never been more important than it is today in a society, in a moment, when we have forgotten how to listen at all,” El-Sayed said. “I want you to ask yourself this: What would our society look like right now if we were all just a bit more willing to listen, to dignify the pain that people feel in their lives?”

Our polarized society has lost a lot of its empathy and its will to help people feel better, El-Sayed said. “As oral health providers, you will be in a position to listen and to heal. And beyond that, to model what it means for other people to do that, too. You’ll be able to remind people that it is still possible and that it still matters in our world, this empathy, this willingness to dignify people’s pain and to empower them through it.”


Dental Hygiene Faculty Award
recipient Sheree Duff
Dental Hygiene Senior Class President Brenna Slovak recounted how far she and her classmates have come in a relatively short period of time. She said the first cleaning she performed, with her mother as her first patient, took six hours over two appointments. Today it would take 45 minutes. “You gotta start somewhere!” she said. Slovak praised the dental hygiene faculty and staff for their unfailing patience and assistance over a wide range of requirements, from the clinical basics of probing, scaling and polishing to coursework in anatomy, nutrition, research, periodontitis, community dental health and practicums. Slovak led the audience in applause for faculty, staff, parents, family and friends who contributed to the success of the Class of 2019.

Slovak introduced Professor Sheree Duff, the Dental Hygiene Faculty Award Recipient who worked closely with the class from her first day. “I don’t think I have ever seen her in a bad mood,” Slovak said. “She is the most passionate instructor I have ever met. She cares wholeheartedly about our education and professional success.” Duff thanked the class for the award and returned the compliment, saying she observed many heartwarming moments as members of the Class of 2019 grew in their abilities and confidence. She watched as they helped fellow classmates who had questions, taught patients new oral health skills and received patient compliments on their treatment.


DDS Senior Class President Milad Karim
“It remains such a privilege to teach the next generation of our profession,” Duff said. “I believe that teaching is about relationship building, about passion for the subjects one is involved with and a more than serious intent to impart that knowledge to others. I am so pleased that my students enjoyed our time together both in the classroom and in the clinics. I appreciated our discussions in the subject area of periodontology, with this class actually requesting longer lectures! Their desire to dive into content at a deeper level and the pursuit for even more knowledge, is the Michigan difference.”

DDS graduate Milad Karim, who served as president of the Class of 2019 for all four years, said the class endured more than 500 exams, quizzes and practicals during its 1,418 days in dental school. He recounted various stages of the journey, including the first week when each class member was handed a typodont and asked to adjust its bite so that it occludes correctly. They stared at each other, confused by what is now a simple task for them. “Not more than a week into dental school, we were struck with the reality that it would take hard work, determination, resilience and the support of each other to succeed,” Karim said. “This was the first of many times we realized that we all had so much to learn in what seemed to be so little time.”


Dr. Furat George, Paul Gibbons
Award recipient
The ensuing four years have provided many challenges, but could also be described as some of the best times of their lives, Karim said. “Look how far we have come!” he said, crediting the encouragement and support of faculty, staff, family, friends and the patients who entrusted the students with their oral healthcare. “I am personally very excited to see where life takes all of us and all the amazing things we will accomplish,” he said. “I wish you all the best success. I know we will do a lot of good things in this rewarding profession.”

Karim introduced Dr. Furat George, selected by the graduating class as the recipient of the annual Paul Gibbons Award, presented to a faculty member who has contributed significantly to the success of the class. Gibbons was an alum and School of Dentistry professor who was a nationally renowned expert in prosthodontics and cleft palate treatment. He died in 1964 at age 44, six months after he had received the faculty teaching award, which was then renamed in his memory. Karim cited Dr. George, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Biologic and Materials Sciences & Prosthodontics, as a compassionate and knowledgeable faculty member with impressive attention to detail and clinical knowledge that motivates students to deliver the highest level of care.


DDS graduate Alan Faber III was one of 11 DDS
graduates hooded by parents who are alumni of
the school. His father, Alan, helps Dr. Renée Duff
place the hood.
George said his advice for the graduating class is about thinking ahead. “It is to always have a goal and to work very hard in order to achieve that goal,” he said. “And when you achieve that goal, don’t think that you are done, because you need to set another goal and work hard again to accomplish it.” George, who graduated from the Baghdad College of Dentistry in Iraq in 1998, said he could never have imagined then that he would someday be receiving a faculty award and giving a speech at the top-rated University of Michigan School of Dentistry. His first goal was to come to the United States, then to attend the University of Michigan, then to work hard at being a good faculty member. He said his goal was never to receive a teaching award, but it is a bonus that came with his real goal to “work hard and to go out of my way to teach you and help you become the competent dentists that you are today.”

“So go on setting goals to better yourself and others around you because if you do well, you should help others do well, too. Mother Teresa once said, ‘Give, but give until it hurts.’ This includes giving back to your family, your friends, your community and your profession,” he said. “So go on and do great things and make us proud because nothing makes parents happier than the achievement of their kids.”


Graduation day was an intricate mix of Dental School connections for the Larson family of Ludington, Mich. School alumnus Dr. Cheryl Larson (third from right) and her husband, John (left) celebrated the graduation of their daughter, Jessica (second from left). Jessica stands next to her fiancé, Tyler Smith, also a member of the DDS class. Also pictured at far right are Jessica's brother, Joseph, who just graduated from U-M Medical School, and his wife, Lauren, also a member of the DDS Class of 2019. Jessica will join her mother's practice, Tyler will be practicing in nearby Hart and Lauren will practice in the Ann Arbor area.


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The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu.  Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at dentistry.communications@umich.edu, or (734) 615-1971.