First and final embraces for DGSOM graduates at the ‘Grad Garden Gala’

Class of 2021 graduates gather for the first time in 14 months to say goodbyes

UCLA medical students celebrate graduation
Class of 2021 graduates of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA finally meet on May 27, 2021, in person on campus with a "Grad Garden Gala" ahead of their upcoming graduation. Attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

The graduates were eager to connect in person following a year of hardship, isolation and unpredictability, in which they experienced firsthand the magnitude of their commitment, bore witness to the expertise of their professors and instructors, and understood with newfound clarity their oath to healing.

On Thursday, May 27, students from the senior class of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA finally had the opportunity to unite on campus with a “Grad Garden Gala,” ahead of their graduation on Friday, June 4.

“Our celebrations have looked a little bit different this year, which is why I'm super glad we have this event tonight,” said Roberta Palau, one of the event organizers and class social activities committee chair. “We get to see each other (in person) one last time before moving all over the country.”

Organized by Christos Haveles, 2021 class president; Sarah Andebrhan, vice president; Palau and the Student Affairs Office, the gala held in the Irma and Norman Switzer Plaza included a photo booth, lawn games, music and individually prepared meals for students to mingle and enjoy each other’s company.

Woman and man speak at graduation celebration
Class president Christos Haveles and vice president Sarah Andebrhan speak at the "Grad Garden Gala" on May 27, 2021. The class of 2021 graduates of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA finally meet in person on campus ahead of their upcoming graduation. Attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Those in attendance were required to present proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

“The past year was a struggle for everyone in our class, in different ways,” Palau said.

Haveles said the social isolation of the pandemic was especially difficult for him.

“I think I took for granted having such easy access to people in person,” he said. “The pandemic changed how I choose to spend my time, like reconnecting with family members and catching up with people I hadn’t talked to in a long time.”

For many students, the challenges of the intense workload were compounded by the pandemic hitting especially close to home.

Laura Hernandez Santiago, who recently matched into pediatrics at UCLA, said her father, an essential worker, contracted COVID-19 during the holiday season.

“This was the same time I was doing an internal medicine rotation that I was supposed to have had in March,” Hernandez Santiago said. “What was challenging was that I was watching behind the scenes of what was happening at the hospital, and then seeing what was happening back home.”

Gabriela Lopez, David Geffen School of Medicine class speaker and well-being committee representative, said she made the decision to move back home with her parents in August 2020 after learning her father had been sent home from his position as a janitor at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center due to the shortage of personal protective equipment for staff.

woman at medical school graduation celebration
Class speaker Gabriela Lopez attends the "Grad Garden Gala" on May 27, 2021. The class of 2021 graduates of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA finally meet in person on campus ahead of their upcoming graduation. Attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

“I was able to take care of my parents, who are elderly, plus continue my rotations and wards.”

Having the support of her roommate, classmates, Associate Dean for Student Affairs Dr. Lee Todd Miller, and Drs. Rebecca Dudovitz and Amanda Kosack, are what encouraged her to keep going despite the challenges she faced, she said.

“I had a lot of self-doubt and for Dean Miller and my classmates to not doubt me for a second, that was amazing,” Lopez said. “They helped me make the best out of a pretty bad situation.”

Palau said the life experiences medical students go through together are what make their bonds so unique.

“The people you’re close to in medical school see all sides of you – the best and the worst,” she said.

Haveles agreed. “My medical school friends will absolutely be lifelong friends that I will be continuously checking in with and looking to for career advice and guidance through all the different stages in life,” he said.

“I think these relationships have been even more powerful and rewarding than getting the actual degree. Life at the end of the day is about these human interactions and bonds as doctors with our patients and our colleagues.”

The David Geffen School of Medicine class of 2021 will graduate in a virtual ceremony on June 4, 2021. Event program and livestream are available here.


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