By Jesse M. Conyers, MD
Over the past few weeks, many have apologized about our radiology residency Class of 2020 not having a traditional graduation ceremony. Over and over, I have replied “It’s totally OK” or “Really, it’s fine.” But as I take an honest inventory of my emotions, I realize that’s not really true. It’s not OK. I’m sad about it.
As a chief resident, I’ve never felt like I could be openly sad with other residents. I’ve worked to be a protector, an advocate, a role model, and a leader. I’ve tried to convey feelings of trust, courage, hope, and joy – but never sadness. In this moment, I find it difficult to spin this feeling of sadness. So maybe I shouldn’t.
At the beginning of this academic year, I thought my biggest challenges regarding graduation would be convincing our chairman to hire a DJ with a dance floor and extend the graduation party for two hours. I had a proposal drafted to request extra tickets to graduation for senior residents, so they could invite as many family members and friends as they wanted to the celebration. I now realize how trivial these issues seem, and I wish so badly these were our current concerns.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly affected resident and medical student education, including the recognition of academic milestones such as graduation. Due to public health and safety concerns, most institutions are offering virtual graduation for 2020 and potentially even in the future. The concept of a virtual graduation is not unique to the COVID-19 crisis — in fact, online schools and universities have used virtual commencement ceremonies for many years. These graduations are typically broadcast through live web-based events, pre-recorded videos, or live streaming of a smaller, on-site ceremony.
Beyond the obvious contrast in physical settings, however, what are the differences between a traditional and a virtual graduation ceremony? If virtual commencement ceremonies have been available for years, why haven’t they been used more commonly before this pandemic? And what do these differences mean to the people who are being celebrated, the graduates?
The first difference that comes to mind is enthusiasm. It’s difficult to garner excitement from the couch, especially when graduates know family and friends won’t be joining in the festivities. The anticipation of getting dressed up and celebrating with classmates is lost on a virtual graduation. During residency, a fellow once told me, “You can put a pig in a dress, but it’s still a pig.” With respect to a virtual graduation ceremony, I can get all dressed up and sit in my house, but I’m still sitting in my house. It’s hard to feel passionate about watching a pivotal moment like graduation on a screen.
Along with a shortage of enthusiasm, virtual graduation ceremonies necessarily lack spontaneity. Many components of a virtual graduation are often pre-recorded, including welcome addresses, commencement speeches, award presentations, acceptance speeches, and video messages. While these prepared videos can help ease the logistical planning of a virtual ceremony, allow presenters to hone their speeches, and even permit speeches to be shared later, pre-recorded videos intrinsically lose interactivity and spontaneity. At my residency institution, the graduation ceremony is usually co-hosted by the program director and the chief residents. Lately, I’ve been thinking how much I will miss hearing our program director’s spontaneous and hilarious “dad jokes” during the ceremony. I will miss telling embarrassing stories about my co-residents while congratulating them on their accomplishments. I will even miss watching those naturally awkward encounters among faculty and staff from different divisions, who rarely interact with each other outside of this annual occasion. These moments of joyful spontaneity are absent in a virtual platform.
In general, cultures establish rituals such as graduations to help guide us through transitions. Traditional graduation ceremonies are filled with symbols of transition, including the action of walking across a stage and moving a tassel from one side of a graduation cap to the other. The virtual graduation, however, lacks a sense of transition and rather conveys finality. I feel sad when I think about not saying goodbye to my co-residents with whom I have worked and learned over the past five years. I feel even more sad when I think about the possibility that I might not see some of these colleagues again. Virtual graduation feels like an abrupt change from residency to fellowship without the normal fanfare to ease the transition.
Finally, and most importantly, the biggest difference between traditional and virtual graduation is togetherness. It is this togetherness that has bonded us as peers. We have become united by the shared experiences of our first-year orientation, conferences, lectures, call shifts, happy hours, birthday parties, weddings, baby showers, and countless other celebrations of life’s important events over the past five years. Missing the opportunity to celebrate our collective accomplishments together has created a void. This void is importantly also experienced by our family and friends who have supported us throughout residency. They will miss the experience of watching us complete this journey, hugging us with both arms and telling us how we’ve made them proud, and getting to know our colleagues who have had a tremendous influence on our careers.
At the beginning of this academic year, a change was made to our program’s call schedule that created a perceived “crisis” among the residents. At the time, I told my co-residents, “We can get through this if we stick together. Ducks fly together.” This mantra of “ducks fly together” has permeated through our residency, and yet, ironically, togetherness is now the one thing we cannot have.
While a virtual graduation ceremony may seem disappointing, most graduates and families, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, ultimately recognize that a virtual commencement is a generous effort made by extremely caring people to palliate a challenging circumstance. As graduates, our feelings of sadness do not undermine the thoughtfulness and time spent planning these virtual ceremonies. We are allowed to feel disappointed yet grateful, proud yet humble, and fearful yet excited – all at the same time. Although this is certainly not the graduation I anticipated, it does not make this journey less meaningful.
Jesse Conyers, MD, is a PGY-5 chief resident at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She will be moving to Atlanta to join Emory University for a breast imaging fellowship in July. Jesse is passionate about radiology leadership and advocacy, supporting women in medicine, and promoting diversity and equality. She dabbles in social media and can be found on Twitter @jesse_conyers.