Western University of Health Sciences’ Commencement ceremonies are more than just a celebration of completing a health professions degree. They speak to the importance of building relationships and making a true connection – to future patients, classmates, faculty, family and society.

WesternU held its Commencement ceremonies on May 17-18, 2012 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, Calif. Six colleges welcomed 749 graduates into the ranks of health professionals.

The importance of family is emphasized as an integral part of the ceremony. Each graduate selects two family members or friends to place the academic hood on their shoulders after receiving their diploma. Christine Green received her Master of Science in Nursing, Health Systems Leadership – Administrative Nurse Leader degree and walked across the stage expecting to see her husband.

Standing next to her husband was their son, Army Spc. Brandon Green, who surprised her by flying from South Korea to attend her graduation.

“I was shocked and pleasantly surprised,” she said. “It means a lot to me to be able to share this with all my family. The fact that he made the effort and they actually allowed him to come makes it extra special.”

Spc. Green received approval for leave a month ago and deliberately kept his trip a secret from his entire family so he could surprise his mother and be with her on her special day.

“I’m proud of her. She did a lot for me,” he said. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”

WesternU graduates have selected selfless professions to pursue, said Devorah Lieberman, PhD, president of the University of La Verne, who served as the guest speaker for the College of Allied Health Professions and the College of Graduate Nursing ceremony.

She gave graduates a homework assignment: write a letter to themselves reflecting on why they chose their profession, and what it means to take care of others. This letter will serve in challenging times as a reminder why the work is important, she said.

“Even when there seems to be more work than hours in the day, as leaders in the health care industry, you will have, to paraphrase your university’s remarkable mission, the ‘knowledge that will enhance and extend the quality of life in your communities.’ That knowledge gives you the strong foundation and the confidence you need to go out and change the world,” Lieberman said. “You are the leaders of this country today, and especially tomorrow. I have no doubt that you will each achieve and exceed every expectation.”

College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific (COMP) and Graduate College of Biomedical Sciences keynote speaker H. Roger Hadley, MD, dean of the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, highlighted three traits vital to graduates’ future: teamwork, integrity and compassion.

“Successful communication is not what you say. It’s not even what the listener heard. Effective communication is when the listener responds appropriately to what you say,” Hadley said. “You can tell a patient to stop smoking, but unless they quit, you’re not an effective communicator.”

He told graduates to respect themselves and others, to not lie or make excuses, and to have compassion.

“Compassion drives you to do what I believe is the most important thing that an intern or first-year resident can do – to take ownership of the patient and ownership of the patient’s problems,” Hadley said. “Not only should you treat patients as if they are family, you should treat them as if their life depended on it, because it does depend on it. Ownership driven by compassion will guide you to take care of the whole patient.”

College of Pharmacy keynote speaker Michael S. Maddux, PharmD, FCCP, Executive Director, American College of Clinical Pharmacy, advised graduates to remember their responsibility to their patients and their profession, and to always be looking for the best ways to help the profession grown and improve, but also to take time for themselves to have friends and a family.

His five pieces of advice: “Like what you do. Be a professional. Have friends. Give back. And if you are called to lead, lead.”

College of Veterinary Medicine keynote speaker Temple Grandin, PhD, offered some very practical advice about dealing with animals and their owners, cautioning graduates that animals are sensory creatures, and “If their first experience with something – like going to the vet’s office – is a bad one, they will continue to believe it’s bad.”

She also noted that despite many advances in veterinary technology, effective veterinary medicine continues to be the kind practiced by those who can make a real connection with animals by understanding how they feel and react to things.

Echoing the importance of connecting to patients, Sherry Gregory, MSN ’08, who was one of four alumni who spoke on behalf of the WesternU Alumni Association at each ceremony, talked about a mother she met in Sudan who was struggling to breastfeed her baby. Her family labeled her as unfit because she could not provide milk for the infant. With Gregory’s help, the mother successfully got her baby to latch on and feed.

“It sounds trivial, but when that mom looked at me with those eyes of appreciation, that’s something I will never forget,” Gregory said. “Please don’t forget that one. That one who for many reasons is discarded. Gift that one with the respect and the dignity that he or she deserves as a fellow human being.”

COMP paid tribute to a faculty member who has contributed to WesternU, his students and his colleagues for more than 30 years. COMP Dean Clinton Adams, DO, presented the Pumerantz Lifetime Fellow of Excellence in Osteopathic Medical Education to James May, PhD, chair and professor of anatomy, who joined COMP in 1981. He was instrumental in acquiring the first computers on campus in the early 1980s, and he developed the first on-campus software for scoring examinations.

“Dr. May has gained the respect and admiration of all COMP faculty and the administration,” Adams said. “He has stood the test of time and proven to be a true asset and leader at COMP and at WesternU.”

May, the original architect of WesternU’s Commencement ceremonies, said he was flabbergasted by the honor. He works behind the scenes at all the ceremonies each year, and was kept in the dark about taking center stage to receive the award.

“I’m very honored to be recognized this way,” he said.

Class of 2012 students entered the program amid external turmoil: wars, a housing market collapse and a global financial crisis, said Phillip Nelson, DVM, PhD, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, in his Dean’s Charge to the graduates.

“I want you to care not just about yourselves but about your profession, the students behind you, your colleagues, your family, friends and the people you don’t know,” Nelson said. “If we are to avoid the circumstances you had to suffer through when you began this trek, you will have to apply your unique talents to these problems.

“Your potential as a veterinarian is inextricably related to your potential as a person,” he said. “A true professional cannot separate his or her professional and personal lives, for they borrow from each other, depend on each other, nourish each other.

“If you want be a good veterinarian, you must first be a good person.”