Achievements & Awards Education Faculty Students

Commencement 2024: Praise for graduates who confronted – and conquered – unique challenges during their dental school journey12 min read

May 16, 2024

Commencement 2024: Praise for graduates who confronted – and conquered – unique challenges during their dental school journey12 min read

Laurie McCauley wears academic regalia while standing at a podium on a stage and speaking to an audience during the 2024 commencement ceremony.
Faculty react to a funny line in the keynote address by University of Michigan Provost Laurie McCauley, the school’s former dean.

Ann Arbor, Mich., May 16, 2024 – “Resilient” was the word of the day on Friday at the School of Dentistry commencement ceremony as faculty, family and friends of the Class of 2024 celebrated what one speaker called “The Class of Irrepressible Spirit.”

The school graduated 128 dental students, 35 dental hygiene students, 47 master’s degree students in the various dental specialties and the Oral Health Sciences, and four PhD students in Oral Health Sciences, including two who earned both PhD and DDS degrees. The ceremony at Hill Auditorium was attended by family and friends from around Michigan and the country, as well as the families of the many international students the school draws from around the world.

A School of Dentistry faculty member dressed in academic regalia hugs a graduating School of Dentistry Doctor of Dental Surgery student dressed in doctoral regalia during the 2024 commencement ceremony.
DDS graduate August Pearson stops on her way across the stage to hug faculty member Dr. Marcia Campos, who was selected by the senior class for its teaching award.

Dean Jacques Nör led a program of speakers who praised the Class of 2024 for its ability to stay focused on its educational mission despite the Covid pandemic that hit in 2020. Some students who graduated Friday, primarily PhD students with 7-year programs, were already at the school when the pandemic hit. Others with shorter degree programs arrived at the school a year or two after the pandemic had eased. While all students were impacted by the pandemic, the four-year DDS Class of 2024 faced the most significant disruption.

Instead of arriving as usual in June for their first day of dental school, class members stayed in their homes around the country and began dental school with coursework, seminars and tests completed online. Students met their new classmates on Zoom, seeing them only on computer screens for months, before finally arriving in-person the last week of August 2020 – even then shielded by masks and forced to practice social distancing.

Nör said “resilient” is an excellent description of the graduating students. “Dental school has always been a challenging course of study even in the best of times. But imagine having prepared for years to enroll in dental school and just before you are all set to start, a worldwide pandemic comes and changes everything,” he said.

A graduating School of Dentistry Doctor of Dental Surgery student wearing doctoral regalia signs 'I love you' in American sign language to the crowd while walking across the stage at the 2024 commencement ceremony.
DDS graduate Bradley Harrison shares some love with family members in the audience as he crosses the stage.

“Nothing about that first couple of years of their dental school was routine, including the fact that they were in the middle of a major building renovation, too. And yet, working with faculty and staff, the students adapted, adjusted, coped, improvised –  complained sometimes, right? – perhaps shed a few tears. But you were determined, you were committed and you remained on course. … You moved forward, completed what you had to complete and now you are receiving your dental degrees. Today we salute all our graduates for your commitment and, yes, for your resilience.”

Keynote speaker University of Michigan Provost Laurie McCauley also praised the adaptability of the students in the Class of 2024. McCauley, who was dean of the dental school from 2013-22, said she distinctly remembers welcoming the DDS class on their first day of in-person orientation. Covid restrictions meant meeting everyone for the first time while wearing masks and standing six feet apart in the hallways or leaving spaces between their seats in lecture halls. Given the countless other restrictions and variations of their dental school journey over the last four years, she said this group could be called the “Class of Irrepressible Spirit.”

As graduates embark on their future endeavors, McCauley said her career in dentistry and scientific research has provided her with an understanding of some key elements for success for people, like dentists and researchers, who lead a team. They include flexibility, humility, empathy and curiosity. Being flexible, adaptable and an adherent of lifelong learning is especially important in the field of dentistry, where techniques, technology and research lead to constant change and advances, McCauley said. Sometimes the graduates will need to go in unexpected directions in their careers. “Keep your heart and mind open to opportunities, be flexible,” she advised.

Humility is important for leaders since almost any enterprise requires teamwork. All members of a team – whether visionaries, risk-takers or the conscience of the group – have the potential to contribute and lead.  “As a leader, you will be your best self when you show your team that you need and appreciate them,” she said.

A School of Dentistry Doctor of Dental Surgery student wearing doctoral regalia is hooded by a School of Dentistry faculty member and his father during the 2024 commencement ceremony.
DDS graduate Winston Mallory is hooded by his father Marc Mallory (right), a 1986 alumnus of the school, and Dr. Renée Duff, Associate Dean for Students. Five of this year’s graduates have parents who also graduated from the school.

Empathy is also important, she said, because “our role is to serve our patients, and by empathizing with them, we will be more compassionate and ensure they receive the care they deserve.”  Another valuable skill, curiosity, can be focused on advances in the graduate’s profession as well as curiosity about people since it will allow the graduates to become better and more empathetic practitioners, McCauley said.

In a world of continual change, McCauley told the graduates some things are constants. “You can be certain that people – with all their foibles, complications and quirks – will enrich your life immeasurably. You should seek out these people – friends, partners, colleagues and particularly mentors. You can be certain that you will change, and the world will change. But you have the power to take whatever the world throws at you – and give something back.”

“And graduates, no matter how you feel, you can be certain that you are ready. … You have achieved degrees during one of the most challenging periods in history – from unarguably one of, if not the, top school in the nation and the world. And I am certain that the momentum that brought you this far will take you to unimaginable places beyond the horizon.”

Other speakers included Dental Hygiene class president Brittney Nasir, who introduced the Dental Hygiene Faculty Award recipient, Professor Janet Kinney. Nasir said Kinney’s “essential role in the success of each and every one of us has been apparent from the very start. Her grace, compassion, wit and expertise shine through in all she does.”

Dental Hygiene class president Brittney Nasir (left) and DH Faculty Award recipient Professor Janet Kinney.

Nasir emphasized the important role hygienists have in the greater healthcare field. “By engaging in crucial conversations that prevent and detect oral diseases and potentially save lives, we enhance not only an individual’s oral health but their overall well-being. While some may see our role as merely ‘cleaning teeth,’ we understand the profound impact of our work on our patients and community.”

DDS class president Karim Tabbaa reflected on how the class members’ dental school education contributes to the greater good as they now move on to their careers. “Let us always remember the countless patients who entrusted us with their care. Our patients have been the greatest teachers, reminding us of the profound impact we have on them. Let us carry their stories with us and never forget the privilege and responsibility that come with being a dentist. As we look to the future let us never lose sight of our commitment to excellence, empathy and justice and let us continue to contribute to the world, one smile at a time.”

He added: “Our time at the dental school was filled with challenges and achievements, thanks to all faculty, educators and mentors for the knowledge, experience, and wisdom that you provided us, thank you for believing and entrusting us. You helped us transform our challenges into achievements and beautiful experiences.”

DDS senior class president Karim Tabbaa (left) and Dr. Marcia Campos, the faculty member selected by the class for the Dr. Paul Gibbons Award.

Tabbaa presented faculty member Dr. Marcia Campos as the recipient of the senior class teaching award. It is named for Dr. Paul Gibbons, a School of Dentistry alumnus and 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. Comments from class members about Campos included: “Dr. Campos possesses the best qualities of a clinician, scientist, teacher, mentor, leader and friend. …  Her energy and excitement fill the room. She’s an inspiration and someone I look up to. … She goes above and beyond to make sure the student understands the concept and helps them the best way possible. … Every encounter with Dr. Campos makes you feel seen, valued and important.”

Campos told students that they may have doubts about whether they are fully prepared to begin their careers, just as she did, but life is about constant learning. “Nobody feels fully prepared to start their professional life because the challenges one needs to overcome are faced every day, and the learning won’t stop,” she said. “Experience comes with time and there is no way to rush time, so give it time.”

Early in her career, Campos said, she would go home at the end of her day and overthink everything that went wrong, which made her doubt herself and lose confidence. “Do not take as long as I did to realize that we can’t change the past, but we can embrace the opportunity to write the future – and there are so many possibilities. When I realized that, I became a better professional and a happier one. I decided to end my days learning from what went wrong and looking forward to beginning my next day focusing on ‘what’s next.’”

She also advised: “When everyone is trying to be the same, chose to be different and make the difference. … Never underestimate your power of transforming lives. Go change the world and thank you for changing mine.”

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Jacques Nör hands a diploma to a graduating School of Dentistry postdoctoral student while they are both dressed in doctoral regalia during the 2024 School of Dentistry commencement ceremony.
Dr. Jacques Nör congratulates Amanda Sotillo, who received a master’s degree in prosthodontics.
A graduating School of Dentistry Doctor of Dental Surgery student sits among fellow graduating Doctor of Dental Surgery students dressed in doctoral regalia in the audience with her daughter after receiving a diploma at the School of Dentistry 2024 commencement ceremony.
Toward the end of the ceremony, four-year-old Aadhya came to the student section to join her mother, Dhivyalakshmi Manavazhagan, who earned her DDS as part of the Internationally Trained Dentist Program.
A graduated School of Dentistry student wearing doctoral regalia holds a diploma and bouquet of flowers while poses with family.
Jylian Underwood, who graduated with a Master of Science in Oral Health Science degree, is joined by her parents and sisters outside Hill Auditorium after the ceremony.
Two graduated School of Dentistry Doctor of Dental Surgery students dressed in doctoral regalia stand together and pose outside.
Close friends and DDS classmates Mohab Louis (left) and Danjel Popaj will have a longer distance friendship after Louis leaves for his post-graduation plans in Southern California while Popaj remains in Michigan.
A graduated School of Dentistry Dental Hygiene wearing academic regalia holds a cap that reads 'Holy molar I did it! RDH 2024' and poses with her sister.
Dental Hygiene graduate Carly Ann Barager (left) poses with her decorated mortarboard and her sister Sarah Lucia outside Hill Auditorium after the ceremony.

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SEE RELATED:

A video recording of the ceremony.

Additional photos on the school’s Flickr gallery.

A video tribute to the Class of 2024.

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The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral healthcare 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.