In five ceremonies over three days, Western University of Health Sciences’ nine colleges graduated nearly 1,000 new health care providers, lauding them for their accomplishments and urging them to make a mark on the world.

The Commencement ceremonies ran May 17-19, 2017 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, with WesternU President Daniel R. Wilson, MD, PhD, presiding for the first time. He told the graduates that they would leave the auditorium as health professionals, and this was no accident.

“You chose a life of compassionate, humanistic service to others. But never forget, this life also chose you. It was meant to be you who offers a kind word, an understanding ear, a healing touch. It was you who was chosen not just for your skilled hands, but for your caring heart. It was you upon whom great authority and responsibility is placed, to be exercised with dignity, humility and grace.”

Click to view a slideshow of Allied Health and Podiatric Medicine Commencement

The five keynote speeches provided inspiration, sage advice and a challenge to meet the needs of a changing health care environment. William E. Simon Jr., co-chairman of William E. Simon & Sons, gave the keynote address at the ceremony for the colleges of Allied Health Professions and Podiatric Medicine. In an effort to maintain good health, Simon and his wife set up a foundation — Sound Body, Sound Mind — provides physical fitness equipment to more than 130 Los Angeles schools, impacting more than 125,000 students each day.

“We believe that everybody deserves to break a sweat,” Simon said. “All of you graduates are going to have a chance to change people’s lives for the better, either as you treat your patients or as you educate other health care professionals,” he said. “I hope you will consider the positive influence you can have by making a point to encourage your clients and audience about the importance of physical activity.”

Two rear admirals – one current, one former — gave keynote speeches at Commencement. Rear Admiral Pamela M. Schweitzer, PharmD, BCACP, U.S. Public Health Service Assistant Surgeon General, defined for College of Dental Medicine and College of Pharmacy graduates the four buckets to help guide their lives: continue to question and continue to learn, explore new horizons, put family first, and advocate for your patients.

“Don’t be afraid to say something when a decision can harm or negatively impact patient care or a patient. Use your influence to do good, to make a positive change within your profession and the community,” Schweitzer said. “Stay positive and enthusiastic, and make every day count. Go explore new horizons, continue to grow and learn, network and maintain supportive relationships, and make a difference in the health of your community. You’re the next generation of health care leaders.”

Rear Admiral (Ret.) Clinton Adams, DO, president and chief executive officer of Rocky Vista University and a former dean of WesternU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific (COMP), gave the keynote address for COMP and the Graduate College of Biomedical Sciences. He challenged the new physicians to practice with the qualities highlighted in the DO Class of 2017’s vision statement: patient-centered, community oriented, and compassionate.

“Compassionate care includes you. It’s also care for the caregivers, and caring for the learning environment and everyone in it – the nurse, the janitor, the whole scope – and caring for your family and friends,” said Adams, whose daughter, Joia, graduated as a new physician with the COMP Class of 2017.

College of Veterinary Medicine keynote speaker Justine Lee, DVM, gave a sobering view of the future to new graduates. She warned them to be wary of imposter syndrome – the feeling of unworthiness despite evidence of high achievement – and told them to combat it by thinking positively and ensuring they don’t undervalue themselves.

Graduates must also be aware of burnout and compassion fatigue, as these factors contribute to a predisposition to suicide. Lee said she battled insomnia, depression and suicidal ideation early in her career.

“That’s why I’m such an advocate of good self-care,” Lee said. “Surround yourself with non-veterinary hobbies. Get out in nature. Hike with your dog. Exercise. Spend time with family and friends. Take time off if you’re burned out. Look at other options within our veterinary field. You have nothing but options out there. Prioritize this so you can find joy. Most important, make sure to take care of yourself and your colleagues.”

Jacob Green, MPA, assistant manager for the city of San Juan Capistrano, gave the Commencement address for the College of Optometry and the College of Graduate

Nursing. As a student at the University of California, Berkeley, Green suffered head injuries while trying to stop a robbery, leaving him with several physical challenges.

One of those challenges was fluorescent lighting, which caused him debilitating pain. He met with College of Optometry Chief of Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Valerie Quan, OD, at WesternU’s Eye Care Institute, and worked with her team to find a sunglasses color to filter colors that were causing him pain.

“When I got to this exact color – this light green – my face relaxed and it was magic. We found the filter that let the blues and the reds out, and let me function successfully in a fluorescent-lit environment,” Green explained. “The lens was made in the U.K., and the frame was made here in California. Bridging the world together, she created these sunglasses that have reduced my migraines by 95 to 98 percent.

“As a freshman walking on campus, thinking I knew exactly where I was going, I had no idea what success was. I would never have dreamed I would be at this moment today. I have to thank WesternU, which has opened so many doors and has allowed me to create this world for myself,” he said.

Three ceremonies highlighted the impact of both new and retiring leadership.

WesternU honored College of Podiatric Medicine Founding Dean Lawrence Harkless, DPM, who will retire June 30, 2017 after spending the past 10 years launching and growing the college. Harkless will leave WesternU with a legacy of excellence and achievement very few members of the podiatric medicine profession have the opportunity to accomplish in a lifetime, said CPM Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Lester J. Jones, DPM, MS.

“Let me say on behalf of a grateful student body, members of the faculty, staff and administration, we’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for your time, your experience, your expertise, the caring and compassionate way in which you conducted yourself, and the leadership that you have given to this institution,” Jones said.

Harkless said we must all remember to give and share because we are all instruments made by God to help others.

“As I watch one season come to an end I welcome the beginning of a new season and the journey ahead,” Harkless said. “Wherever you are in life, don’t be afraid to try new paths. I’m sure our paths will cross again.”

COMP Dean Paula Crone, DO, presented COMP Professor Emeritus James May, PhD, with the Philip and Harriet Pumerantz Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership and Service, which “recognizes the very highest levels of service to our college and our university,” Crone said.

May retired in January 2017 after more than 36 years of service to COMP. He was the architect of WesternU’s Commencement ceremonies, the designer of its anatomy labs, and an early adopter of computers on campus.

“The recipient of this special award is a man that is near and dear to all of us at WesternU, an individual who has embedded himself into the very fabric of who we are — Dr. Jim May,” Crone said. “I’m so grateful for all that you’ve done for us over the years.”

The College of Graduate Nursing welcomed Mary Lopez, PhD, MSN, RN, as its new dean. During the dean search, Lopez had the support of the entire WesternU campus as well as her students, said Jan Boller, PhD, RN, CGN Assistant Dean of Community Engagement. She gave Lopez a touchstone to serve as a memento and a reminder.

“We want you to know we will be giving you some challenges along the way,” Boller said. “But when that happens, use this touchtone to know that we support you and we respect you as you carry on the legacy of excellence and innovation in the College of Graduate Nursing. Welcome.”

WesternU graduates were thankful for their education and for the support from family and friends.

“This experience has been valuable for me,” said CGN graduate Bridget Lucardie, who earned her Post-Master’s Family Nurse Practitioner Certificate. “The faculty at WesternU are dynamic. They’re supportive, encouraging and they’re very inspirational. I’ll never forget what they taught me.”

Mark and Lori Mitchell hooded their son, College of Dental Medicine graduate Robert Parker Mitchell, DMD ’17, who is the first doctor in their family.

“He’s the oldest, so he’s setting the pace for everyone else,” Lori joked. The proud parents were elated for their son.

“I’m really excited for him. It is truly his passion and it’s great to see him go off in his career doing something he loves,” Mark said Mitchell. “We feel terrific about that.”

“WesternU has been amazing for him,” Lori said.

CVM graduate Kathryn Slaughter, DVM ’17, from Lexington, N.C., came to her commencement with brown and turquoise boots made for walking. 

“There is nothing else I would rather do with my life than be a veterinarian. I grew up surrounded by animals, and it was an instant passion for wanting to be near animals,” she said. “I grew up with my grandmother in my household, and she was dying of heart disease. There was a stethoscope around from an early age, and I would follow my Dalmatians around trying to listen to their heartbeats since the age of 4. So I truly had a stethoscope in my hands since I was 4.

“This feels amazing. This is everything I’ve ever wanted in my life. My lifelong dream has been achieved.”