During a Global Pandemic, Class of 2020 Gather for Online Convocation Ceremony

A photo montage from the Class of 2020 White Coat Ceremony four years ago. It appeared onscreen during the virtual ceremony.

In the midst of a global pandemic that prevented them from gathering in person, RSDM’s Class of 2020 celebrated convocation in a virtual ceremony last month.

Instead of joining a procession in caps and gowns and publicly receiving their lavender hoods, which signify  entry into the field of dentistry, they logged in to the ceremony from home. Graduate’s photos flashed onscreen as their names were called, while friends and family sent love and congratulations via an onscreen chat box.

The ceremony was a mix of traditional elements and digital modifications, including an onscreen opening that began with the text of a quote by Mark Twain: “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.’’ It  was followed by a playful definition of the word “dentist.’’ It read, “Someone who knows the drill, always gets to the root of the problem, and always seeks the tooth.’’

In remarks that were recorded earlier at Rutgers, speakers acknowledged the nearly unimaginable circumstances that transformed graduates’ final semester at RSDM, completed through virtual instruction.

“Who would have guessed that March 13 would have been our last day together as one?’’ asked Class President Justin Dinowitz. “I look forward to the day when we can celebrate in person.’’

Dean Feldman told the class, ““You’ll always have a special bond because you are living through the COVID pandemic. Even with social distancing, you have been there with each other. You have been brought closer together because of this adversity.’’

She reminded them that their RSDM education had rigorously prepared them for the dental profession. Dean Feldman shared feedback she received from residency directors, and dentists who have hired alumni. “They emphasize over and over again that Rutgers graduates stand out above all others,’’ she said. Licensing board examiners have also had high praise. “They tell me there are no other schools which better prepare dentists,’’ she said.

By reflecting on how another pandemic had transformed dentistry, Dean Feldman predicted that COVID-19 would have a similar impact. “I graduated during the HIV crisis,’’ she recounted. “Dentists and other professionals were terrified of this new disease.’’

At first, many measures now regarded as standard were resisted by some, said the dean. “It used to be that wearing gloves and masks were unheard of.’’  Some dentists complained that masks would hurt their relationship with patients because they wouldn’t be able to see facial expressions behind a mask. “They said it would be stifling, but we adapted. Some people now say that n95 masks and face shields will make it impossible. I can assure you that it won’t. We will need to make changes in how we practice in a COVID world. And I can assure you, we will.’’

Following the dean’s address to students, RBHS Chancellor Brian Strom also shared his congratulations. He contended that the challenges of enduring the pandemic will make them better practitioners. “You will be all the better for your dedication and selflessness. The hard-fought lessons will be invaluable.’’

Faculty member Dr. Robert Shekitka, in a display of “Jersey attitude,’’ as he called it, also had some  words of advice. “Don’t forget where you came from, don’t forget your family, your Rutgers family.’’

During the ceremony, the Bergen Medal for student achievement was awarded to Nicole Cullen. The Excellence in Research Award was given to oral biologist Daniel Kadouri, whose groundbreaking work focuses on predatory bacteria as a treatment for drug resistant pathogens. For the second time in three years, Dr. Hind Elhammali was given the Excellence in Teaching award.