Dear Class of 2021,
You did it. Congratulations!
I don’t know about you, but I am VERY happy that this academic year is over. I mean, REALLY REALLY happy! One could say that for us academics, this is a common feeling at the end of any academic year. For you, students, I know this is the moment you have been working for, for so long.
But let’s be honest. This has not been just “any” academic year, and your journey has been unlike that of any who came before you. Most of you started your graduate programs in the fall of 2019, excited about all the new ways in which you would be challenged, the new information you would learn, and the patients you would help. You came into your programs knowing that the next two years would be challenging, but you were eager to see what you were capable of. But, as it often does, life had other plans. A few months into your degree, just as you were starting to get into a rhythm juggling classes, clinic, and studying – chaos ensued. You were all, literally, sent home, and were tasked with doing all the same things, all while watching, with worry and wonder, a world transform before your very eyes.
The pandemic has, quite simply, been terrifying to all of us. With the extraordinarily high number of cases and deaths, most of us know someone whose life has been impacted by COVID-19. For some of you, your own life has been impacted; some of you, many of you perhaps, have lost someone you love. Unlike graduate school, where you had the class ahead of you and other mentors to turn to for advice on how to navigate a new challenge or how to best prepare for this class or that, COVID-19 has been unlike anything any of us could have imagined, let alone experienced. All of us were charged with figuring out how to navigate through an uncharted landscape. This necessitated rapid changes in the way we live, think, teach, and learn. As clinicians, we had to pivot the way we practice, the way we evaluate and treat our patients. As students, you had the additional challenge of learning both the “old” ways and the “new”, transitioning from the classroom to the “Zoom-room”, from clinic rooms to virtual therapy rooms, and all options in-between.
However, in the midst of all this tremendous change, agony, and heartache, some pretty remarkable things also happened. Teams of scientists across the world collaborated and developed lifesaving vaccines and treatments in record time; clinicians across fields, across countries and states stepped in for each other; innovations reached patients and consumers faster than ever; telehealth and virtual learning became almost standard practices; professional associations and even individual professionals took on immense advocacy endeavors; governments communicated efficiently and spearheaded immediate change. All this would have seemed radical or even impossible a mere couple of years ago. So, how was it possible within just a few months?
Most of us grew up in a society that values individualism and antagonism, where being the best, the most beautiful, getting the most As, getting the best job, making the most money are viewed as the ultimate goals in life. But what this past year showed us is that it was really the opposite, that is, our ability to connect, to share, and to collaborate – albeit most of the times from a distance – that kept us going, and kept humanity progressing at one of its most vulnerable times in recent history. For the first time – at least in our lifetime – we saw individuals, science, industry, and governments step up and come together in common purpose to solve what looked to be an insurmountable problem. In some way, in the year when togetherness, and so much more were, at stake, it was “togetherness” that actually saved us. That, and science, of course.
As you reflect on what helped you get to this graduation day – despite the grave challenges of this past year and a half – I ask you to first think about what truly kept you going, especially at those tough times, the times when you almost broke. I am talking about the times when a family member got sick or hospitalized, when an assignment was just impossible, when a SOAP note or your thesis was returned full of red marks, when your clinic patient was not making progress, when you had a full day of clinic or TAing with 2 hours of sleep. At those moments (and I know you had at least some of them), what was it that kept you going? What was it that empowered you? I am certain that most of you are thinking about all the connections you formed within and outside the classroom, within and outside the clinic, within and outside your own microcosmos.
It is connections such as these, with your patients, your peers, your mentors, and your loved ones, that will be your “lighthouse” as you navigate your careers and lives. These bonds are what will make you feel happy and fulfilled, but also what will keep you driven and humble, and what will ultimately move our field, and the world, forward. Because when we see ourselves as part of something larger, when we understand how interconnected and interdependent we all are, and work together while empowering each other, that’s when we are truly the strongest. Our field’s achievements this past year and a half are clear evidence of this simple truth. Within just a few months, we saw remarkable progress in clinical adaptations for dysphagia management, in the safe use of PPE to protect our patients and ourselves, and in the use of telehealth, including changes in reimbursement, that had been taking years of advocacy to no avail. Importantly, we also witnessed an impressive increase in multi-site clinical and research collaborations and dissemination efforts, and, through necessary transition to virtual only conferences, we also observed an unparalleled expansion in knowledge access across international and inter-professional boundaries. It is clear that the landscape of clinical practice and knowledge exchange in our field has changed forever, bringing us to a unique momentum of connectedness and progress on which you are now beginning your careers. What a rare opportunity you have!
As you graduate, you now become the next generation of clinical scientists in speech language pathology and dysphagia. Your scientific journey just started, and this journey – like that of all great scientists – will be painful and challenging at times. As graduates, you now have a foundation on which to build as you work to continue to advance our field. The road ahead will not always be smooth. There will be bumps, questions, doubts, and likely more failures than successes, all of which are essential to the pursuit of lifelong learning and growth.
But as 2021 graduates specifically, you all have a unique set of skills – forged from this time of great uncertainty – to deal with those bumps, to overcome adversity, to foster greater connections, and with greater appreciation for the value of togetherness and science. As a result, you are uniquely equipped to elevate our field to a different level, one that can break barriers, take advantage of technological advances wisely, improve our appreciation and trust in science, and engage in global work across borders.
You witnessed firsthand the heartache, but also the triumph of this past year and a half. And not only did you survive this extraordinary time, you thrived. You are in the best place to lead us forward. We can’t wait to see all the horizons you will help us open.
Make sure to take time to celebrate one of life’s best milestones.
Class of 2021, we salute you.
Georgia A. Malandraki