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Commencement 2016: A day of celebration and reflection

Graduates urged to lead global push for better health care access, quality

Ann Arbor, Mich., May 13, 2016 -- The fundamental message for graduates of the University of Michigan School of Dentistry likely hasn’t changed much in the 140 years since the pioneering class of nine graduated in 1876.

The imperative and rewards of public service. Strength and confidence gained by enduring a rigorous course of study. The power of collaboration both within and beyond the health care community. The never-ending importance of connecting on a human level rather than emphasizing tools and technology. The joy and fulfillment of reaching a major life goal in a historic venue on a beautiful spring day with one’s family and friends there to share in it.

Those were some of the main themes presented to and by the Class of 2016 at Hill Auditorium on Friday, May 6, as the school conferred 114 Doctor of Dental Surgery degrees, 32 Dental Hygiene bachelor degrees, 34 master’s degrees and certificates, and one PhD. The two-hour ceremony included speeches by the senior class presidents of dental and dental hygiene, the two faculty members presented with teaching awards and a keynote by Dr. Martin Philbert, dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Dr. Martin Philbert delivers the keynote address

In introducing Philbert, School of Dentistry Dean Laurie McCauley noted his emphasis on collaboration among health care disciplines as a way to engage current and future global health issues, an approach the School of Dentistry has implemented though its interprofessional education initiative. “Our students are taught collaboration at all levels – across the university, with community and academic partners around the world, with stakeholders in many capacities, and with public and private decision-makers,” McCauley said. “(Dean Philbert’s) vision is to find new and innovative ways to bridge the divide between scholarly discovery and the widespread adoption of the best public health practices.”

"(Dean Philbert’s) vision is to find new and innovative ways to bridge the divide between scholarly discovery and the widespread adoption of the best public health practices."

Dean Laurie McCauley

In a speech filled with dental-related anecdotes, many of them seasoned with humor, Philbert had a multi-layered message for graduates. Yes, he said, they will perform invaluable health services for individual patients with dental problems that range from serious emergencies to utilitarian preventative medicine. But their work must go far beyond the daily routine of the dentist office; they must consider the greater good of “equity and the elimination of disparities in access, quality, cost, outcome.”

Philbert told of sitting in a dental chair, fortunate to have a dentist tending to his emergency within a few hours of encountering it. As the work proceeded he was reminded of a trip to India several months earlier when he was approached by a young boy who was begging for money. The boy’s health, including his oral health, was obviously in terrible condition, but medical treatment was unlikely anytime soon, if ever, for the boy and millions of others like him around the world. The incident left Philbert pondering the gap between the world’s “haves” and “have-nots.” “In my ‘time of need,’ I had easy access to the technology and expertise to meet that need. He didn't. There's something wrong with that. I, and those like me, should not have a monopoly on that technology and expertise. No one should. It is our moral and ethical duty to provide care to as many as we can.”

Class of 2016 grads cross the Hill Auditorium stage

The needs of the indigent are no less pressing closer to home, in Michigan, Philbert said. He praised the School of Dentistry’s outreach programs where students contribute to low- or no-cost clinics around the state, region and world. He cited one student’s post-clinic report that told of encountering a patient whose abusive husband had refused to allow her to seek dental care for 30 years, and the ensuing compassionate treatment the woman received. “As public health professionals … you will face the challenge of working in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world where we have medicines and procedures to prevent and treat a wide variety of diseases, but where millions of people don’t have access to those tools,” Philbert told the graduates. “You will face the challenge of new and proliferating technologies – technologies that can both help and hinder. You will face the challenge of injustices that are as old as human civilization. You will have to use what you have learned to help individuals, communities, and decision-makers differentiate between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. You will have to use the best available tools in technology, but at the same time make personal connections. Rather than seeking the immediate causes of disease, it will be your mission to understand the causes, whenever possible, to address and redress them.”

"It is our moral and ethical duty to provide care to as many as we can."

Dr. Martin Philbert

“All of you are going to make a difference, great or small – it matters not,” he said. “You have chosen to dedicate your lives to bettering the health and well-being of your fellow human beings. I know of no greater calling.”

In her speech as Dental Hygiene senior class president, Hope Woolley recounted the many clinics, outreach programs, types of research and community service projects the class experienced in its three years. She said an informal survey showed lots of variations on what “The Michigan Difference” means to her classmates, including harder tests, never-ending homework and research, and no fall break for dental students, to name a few. Woolley said she has come to view the phrase in terms of striving higher. “Michigan has not taught us what to think, but how to think – to think bigger,” she said.

Dental Hygiene senior class president Hope Woolley

"We have our own minds and we’ve been taught to think, not blindly follow."

Hope Woolley

“We are heading into the unknown of clinical practice, and sometimes our lack of experience or insecurities may lead us to embrace other people’s expectations, standards, or values,” she said. “May I propose that this doesn’t have to be the case. We have our own minds and we’ve been taught to think, not blindly follow. In these situations we have the opportunity to truly be the leaders and best.”

Wooley introduced Danielle Furgeson, clinical assistant professor, who was selected for the Outstanding Instructor Award by the Dental Hygiene class of 2016. Woolley cited Furgeson’s high expectations, passion for dental hygiene and ability to make students think. “I don’t think the term ‘think outside the box’ actually applies to her. She just wants you to make your box a lot bigger,” Woolley said.

Clinical Assistant Professor Danielle Furgeson, winner of the Dental Hygience senior class Outstanding Teaching Award

Furgeson told the students they should never underestimate the magnitude of their accomplishment – the sacrifices they made, the difficulties they overcame – in completing their difficult course of study. “One of the greatest joys of being an educator is watching the students you teach evolve from overwhelmed and awkward students to confident, knowledgeable oral health care providers,” she said.

Furgeson recounted a recent presentation by a woman who climbed Mt. Everest, comparing the problems, frustrations and temporary failures involved in attempting to summit with those that the new graduates will face in their educational and professional journeys. “These are the experiences that will make you smarter, stronger and better prepared as you continue to move forward,” she said. “Today is not the summit, but the mid-point of your climb.”

In his speech to the dental class, Senior Class President Andrew Grillo drew laughs when he removed his mortarboard to give the audience a look at his hairline, which he said had receded by several centimeters during the last four years of stressful study. Citing research compiled by classmate Spencer Crouch, Grillo said the class completed 138 exams, 230 quizzes, 110 practicals and test cases, and 111 papers and projects. After thanking the graduates’ support network of family members, friends, faculty and mentors, Grillo urged his classmates to remember the reasons and motivations for going into dentistry that they cited on their personal statements during the admissions process. “Don’t be ordinary, be extraordinary,” Grillo advised. “ … Pay it forward. Be a leader, be an advocate, be a mentor, be a difference in someone’s life, put others first and give back, get involved and do things in your community.”

Senior class president Andrew Grillo removed his mortarboard to show his receding hairline, which he claimed was caused by academic stress

Grillo introduced Patricia Doerr, who received the Paul Gibbons Award, given by the senior class to a faculty member chosen as the most influential during their four years in the school’s predoctoral program. Gibbons was an alum and School of Dentistry professor who was a nationally renowned expert in prosthodontics and cleft palate treatment. He died at age 44 in 1964, six months after he had received the faculty teaching award, which was then renamed in his honor. In choosing Doerr, students said she puts patients first, is both a mentor and role model for students, runs clinics smoothly and is good at helping students apply diagnostic skills learned in lecture.

Doerr said receiving the honor made her consider what she hopes students take away from their interactions with her. “The most important thing would have to be how you relate to patients: How to treat them with respect, how to see the person behind that tooth pain, behind the broken denture, behind the smile, so to speak.” Doerr praised the class for the student-patient interactions she witnessed in the clinics. “I have been impressed with so many of you in this class when I’ve overheard how you speak to your patients, how you treat them, how you listen to them, and take care of them. You see them when they may be at their worst, due to pain, frustration, financial concerns. Yet you still reassured them that you want to help them and you treated them with respect and dignity.”

Dr. Patricia Doerr hugs senior class president Andrew Grillo after her introduction as winner of the Paul Gibbons teaching award

“This award makes me happy that maybe I made a little difference in your life and your future in dentistry,” Doerr said. “And now it’s your turn to go make a difference, too.”

After the ceremony, on the warm, sun-splashed steps of Hill, the graduates and their families and friends were a lively throng of countless hugs, smiles and group photos.

Newly minted DDS Alexis Omer was making her way through a chorus of congratulations from a large group of extended family, including her parents, Paula Manis and Robin Omer of East Lansing. Mom was quick with the oft-repeated family story about how Alexis chose her profession: “She decided the first time she went to the dentist, at age 5, that she wanted to be a dentist,” Manis said, then two years later refined it to being an orthodontist after a trip to an orthodontist’s office. “Hard to believe,” Mom said of graduation day. “We couldn’t be prouder.” Meanwhile, Dad acknowledged the value of family support, including the financial part, which isn’t quite finished since Alexis will continue at U-M with an orthodontics residency. “I’m elated,” Dad said. “It’s one of those big milestones in life that you really take note of.”

Alexis joins her aunt and uncle, Sandy and Don LaTurno, in the U-M dental family. Don LaTurno graduated from the School of Dentistry in 1971 and went into oral medicine at U-M, serving as clinical director during his tenure through 1991. Sandy LaTurno graduated in 1976 and was an assistant professor and endodontist at the School of Dentistry until 1989. Alexis’s maternal grandfather also was a dentist.

New grad Alexis Omer celebrates with her parents, Robin Omer and Paula Manis. At right are her aunt and uncle, Sandy and Don LaTurno, also School of Dentistry alums and former faculty

Alexis acknowledged the importance of her family and friends in reaching graduation day. “There have been a lot of ups and downs, but knowing that this is what I wanted to do my whole life has made it all worth it,” she said. “And you make so many friends here and we’re all going through it together, so it’s really kind of a family-team effort. There’s a lot of dentistry in our family. And making my family proud also has helped me make it through.”

New Drs. Tom Guinall, Sagar Patel and Sohrab Ansari were standing together, soaking up the great weather and in no hurry to go anywhere soon. Guinall said it didn’t quite seem real that he’d finally graduated, yet it felt great at the same time. He and Patel said the difficulty of completing the program was offset by the friendship the three shared. “I’m definitely going to really miss these guys,” Patel said.

Carol Hopma and her husband, Jerry, came from Muskegon, Mich., to see their granddaughter, Morgan Durham, receive her dental hygiene degree. Carol is asked how she felt watching Morgan cross the stage. She says nothing for a moment and it’s not clear whether, under her sunglasses, she’s answering the question by re-enacting feeling sad, or if just the thought of it made her sad again. She finally smiles and says, “It was a little emotional.”

Morgan is headed to Houston, Texas, for job interviews. How would she describe her three years at the School of Dentistry? “Oh, man, it was – how do I sum this up? – it was an experience, it was great, it was a lot of hard work. You get put into hard situations with great faculty and great people, and you don’t have a choice but to succeed.

“I loved it. I couldn’t have gotten a better experience anywhere else.”

Cassandra Webster gives high-fives to friends and family as she exits Hill after the ceremony
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