Health science professionals will be on the front lines as the Affordable Care Act takes full effect over the next few years, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said last week, and WesternU graduates in particular will have a mission to carry out the core values of the institution as they treat patients.

Solis’ message to graduates came during the first of five ceremonies comprising Western University of Health Sciences 33rd annual Commencement Exercises, held May 14-16, 2014 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Solis was the keynote speaker for the College of Allied Health Professions (CAHP) and College of Podiatric Medicine’s (CPM) ceremony, which kicked off the Commencement events on May 14.

"I was a first-generation college student, and I know the challenges you have faced," Solis, a former member of Congress and a current candidate for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, told the graduates after receiving an honorary degree from WesternU President Philip Pumerantz, PhD, and CPM Dean Lawrence Harkless, DPM. "The hard work is behind you, so now you can relax – but only for a moment. Each of you will be on the front lines. You have graduated at a perfect time."

Citing statistics that show 3.4 million previously uninsured California residents will get health coverage under the ACA, Solis said "The need for your service is clear." She made particular mention of children and seniors – "I am certain you will serve our seniors with compassion and dignity" – and observed that once embarked upon, the mission to provide care is perpetual.

"You will carry out that mission with pride, and with the core values WesternU has instilled in you. The goal-setting never ends. You compassion, your innovation, and your expertise should never stop growing."

In all, 960 graduates – a record total — participated in WesternU’s five Commencement ceremonies, which also included the colleges of Dental Medicine (CDM), Graduate Nursing (CGN), Optometry (CO), Osteopathic Medicine (COMP), Pharmacy (COP) and Veterinary Medicine (CVM), as well as the Graduate College of Biomedical Sciences (GCBS).

Of special note was the 3,000th graduate from the College of Allied Health Professions.

CAHP graduate Chardonnay Shinn, MSPA ’14, is one of many WesternU graduates entering primary care – family medicine, in her case.

"I’m going into family medicine because of the variety you get with it as opposed to any kind of specialty," she said. "It helps you master the skills of everything you learned."

Leo Rouse, DDS, FACD, Professor of Clinical Dentistry, Interim Deputy Provost for Health Sciences and Dean, Howard University College of Dentistry, provided "Pearls of Wisdom" to help guide CDM and COP graduates in their careers. He asked them to give back to WesternU, to remain humble, and to continue the conversation about interprofessional, collaborative practice. He also urged each graduate to work with their colleagues to improve health care.

"Become a health care advocate for all," Rouse said. "Become part of the access to health care conversation, not in silos, but in consensus building that is both ethical and professional."

WesternU has a different mindset in terms of how professors and students collaborate and share ideas, said CDM graduate Maryam Afifi, DMD ’14.

"It has an openness to it that I don’t think is very common in other universities," she said. "That openness is, you can come and talk to us, you can come and share things with us. You have more freedom to express what’s going on and present ideas. It’s friendly and respectful."

At the ceremony for the colleges of Graduate Nursing and Optometry, Howard Kahn, MBA, Chief Executive Officer for L.A. Care Health Plan, asked graduates to think back to the time in their life when they decided to embark on a career in health care. He said he hoped that for all of them, it was an "a ha!" moment that meant they planned to pursue a passion rather than a paycheck.

"There are distinct differences between a job and a career, and a career and a passion. I could tell the difference, even as a teenager, between those who had a passion for their careers and those for whom it was just a job. It’s a unique and exciting time to be in health care, and an exhausting time to be in health care. Health care reform has placed new pressure on those of us who have chosen health care as a career."

Kahn also urged graduates to embrace managed care as an ally in caring for patients, and to use health plans’ resources to their fullest extent, because they size of the system will demand it. "Everyone has a right to health care. We finally have made that part of our social contract, and it’s impossible to see us retreating from that.

"Understand and accept your limits, but perform to those limits. Be good at what you do, be passionate about what you do, and pass your wisdom, knowledge, and experience on to others."

CGN graduate Ted Vuong, who earned a Master of Science in Nursing degree with an emphasis in Ambulatory Care Nursing, said there were times he doubted himself, but with the support of the faculty, he’s glad he finally reached graduation day.

"I feel it’s really important to achieve higher education to our capacity," he said. "With the changes going on in health care today, especially within the scope of nursing, it is imperative that we really reach a higher point of research and education and try to give back to our community and work together with our colleagues. I definitely feel that nurses are going to be on the front line, especially with the changes in health care going on right now."

College of Veterinary Medicine keynote speaker Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD, Professor of Medicine in the Division of Cardiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, implored CVM graduates to work with their physician counterparts to benefit both human and animal health.

It’s human nature to elevate our species above other animals, but there are real costs to seeing ourselves as a species apart, separate and better, she said. It is scientifically narrowing, it discourages making the kinds of connections that generate new hypotheses, and it deprives us of the opportunity of seeing the bigger picture. That perspective could help us understand problems from a broader perspective, and might generate novel approaches, perhaps even solutions, to the most intractable problems we face, she said.

"What I have most learned from veterinarians is the power of connection. Comparative medicine, so foundational to veterinary medicine, has at its core an acknowledgement of the deep and essential connection between the widest array of animals," Natterson-Horowitz said. "Translational veterinary medicine connects bench research to both animal and human patients. And veterinary public health connects the health of individual animals in flocks, herds and schools to water, food and our shared environment. Human medicine needs the connecting power of your field."

COMP/GCBS Commencement speaker Norman Vinn, DO, president of the American Osteopathic Association, told graduates that the profession of osteopathic medicine has grown by leaps and bounds despite its relatively young age (140 years), and that today’s graduates are at the vanguard of a medical movement that has seen more than 80 percent of all DOs ever licensed graduate in just the past 40 years.

"I am issuing a call to adventure to you, to take part in the mythic journey of the osteopathic profession," Vinn said. "You are our next generation of heroes."

Vinn asked the Class of 2014 to keep three things in mind as they embark on their careers:

Personal growth. "Never pay attention to how you compare to other people. Ask yourself, am I doing a better job today than I did yesterday? Can I do a better job tomorrow?"

Leadership. "Young DOs ask me, ‘How do I know if I should lead?’ You will find that leadership opportunities find you. Your call to serve will come – will you recognize your mandate to be a leader?"

Stewardship of the profession. "Always demonstrate the humanism and the compassion that are the cornerstones of being a DO. Be true to the osteopathic principles and philosophy. Live each day as an example of what an osteopathic physician should be."

COMP also celebrated the graduation of the last COMP-Northwest Track class. These students spent their first two years at WesternU’s Pomona campus, then completed clinical rotations in the Pacific Northwest. The Northwest Track laid the foundation for the development of COMP-Northwest’s Lebanon, Ore. campus, which will celebrate its first Commencement in 2015.

COMP-Northwest has developed into a comfortable learning environment, said Jonathan Barrus, DO ’14, who served in Lebanon as a fifth-year Neuromusculoskeletal Medicine/Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine Pre-Doctoral Teaching Fellow, and was part of the Northwest Track. He is entering a family medicine residency in Pocatello, Idaho.

"Being from a small, underserved area in Idaho, I feel COMP-Northwest is really drawing more students from the Northwest to fulfill that need to return to the Northwest," he said. "The majority of students I talked to up there plan on going back to their hometowns. I wanted to return to a small town. Primary care is most conducive to the lifestyle I want. And in addition to that, primary care is where the greatest need is at this point in the medical profession."

COMP’s graduating class also included a second-generation COMP graduate and fourth-generation osteopathic physician. Eric Sechrist, DO ’14, said his father, COMP alumnus Martin Sechrist, DO ’85, and mother, Diane, did not put added pressure on him about his career choice. His grandfather William (Tom) Sechrist, and great-grandfather Ward Sechrist are also DOs.

"Ultimately, my parents wanted me to make that decision on my own, not just to go to DO school because of family history. It’s something I wanted to do," Eric said. "It’s the best opportunity to be a caring, compassionate physician with osteopathic skills as well."

Eric said his father gave him this advice: "Always listen to your patients. Always be an advocate for them. Always work in their best interests. Try to do the best for your patients that you can."