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UTSD recognizes Class of 2020 with virtual commencement

White UTHealth School of Dentistry logo on black background; lilac tassel with gold 2020 in foreground
UTSD’s 115th Commencement Convocation Ceremony was the first conducted virtually in school history. Photo by Brian Schnupp.

Amid concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry recognized 142 dental and dental hygiene students in a virtual commencement ceremony July 19 delivered via YouTube. It was the first virtual graduation in the school’s 115-year history, but the program was otherwise as close to normal as possible, including a companion graduation brochure.

Former UTSD Associate Professor Ashley Clark, DDS, now of the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, delivered an uplifting message to open the program.

“Congratulations, to the UTSD Class of 2020,” Clark said. “You’ve done it. You are doctors; you are dental hygienists. These are impressive achievements even under ordinary circumstances, but considering the extraordinary circumstances in which you’ve achieved this, it is very inspiring.”

Dean John A. Valenza, DDS, offered greetings to the virtual audience and commended the graduating classes on reaching this pivotal moment in their lives.

“The transformation of our school and our world these past few months has been unprecedented,” said Valenza. “In spite of the challenges, I am most thankful we have reached this point for you, our graduates, to have completed this chapter in your lives and now be ready to start another.”

Ryan Quock, DDS, who is both the top elected official of the American Dental Education Association and a distinguished teaching professor at UTSD, charged the graduates to take up their roles as health care professionals and as the future of dentistry.

“I will assume, at this point, that you all want to be the very best oral health care providers you can possibly be,” Quock said. “This is a noble and worthy aim. As dentists and dental hygienists, we’re part of a complex health care system that’s in place to increase health to the public:  improving oral health, improving overall health. Will you be invested in pushing yourselves and the profession to think outside the box to better contribute to overall health?

“I’m convinced that dentistry is overdue for transformation, and you, graduates, will lead the way. Trends in dental utilization and accounting for outcomes in health care, not to mention a global pandemic, and outcries to reckon with racial injustice have led us to this critical point. Dentistry must rise, learn, and evolve beyond what we have been in order to meet these challenges, and I firmly believe that you are ready.”

The virtual ceremony followed the traditional format, with Valenza and UTHealth President Giuseppe Colasurdo, MD, officiating. Associate Dean for Student and Academic Affairs Robert Spears, PhD, announced each name as the graduate’s portrait appeared on screen to the traditional tune “Pomp and Circumstance.”

UTSD Alumni Association President David P. Gonzalez, DDS, led The Dentist’s Pledge, while University of Texas - Houston Dental Hygienists’ Alumni Association President Lorie Jones, RDH, BSDH, recited the Dental Hygiene Oath.

The program concluded with a song, performed by Joy Nisnisan, a Class of 2022 dental student. As she sang, masked portraits of some of the graduates appeared on screen, reflecting the historic nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Originally set for May 18 at George R. Brown Convention Center, UTSD’s 115th commencement ceremony was postponed in hopes the pandemic would subside. Instead, the number of confirmed cases continued to rise, prompting administrators to rule out an in-person gathering and take the program online. The school’s 47 advanced education graduates were honored separately.


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