UCI Vice Chancellor of Health Affairs Dr. Steven Goldstein appears on the jumbotron screen in a pre-taped address during the UCI School of Medicine drive-thru commencement in the parking lot of the School of Medicine. Steve Zylius/UCI

Graduations around the country have been canceled or moved to Zoom because of the coronavirus, leaving many graduates without the typical ceremonial marker of their hard work and achievement.

Not so at the UCI School of Medicine.

Its commencement took graduates back to a pre-pandemic time – the 1950s and 1960s, specifically – with an event reminiscent of the drive-in movies of that era. On Saturday, May 30, nearly 100 School of Medicine students drove to campus and graduate from the seats of their cars.

Oscar Hernandez waits to be hooded during the UCI School of Medicine drive-thru commencement in the parking lot of the School of Medicine. Steve Zylius/UCI

Enormous banners adorned Gross and Hewitt Halls, and a 17-by-12-foot video screen displayed the speeches, including pre-recorded remarks from Chancellor Howard Gillman and Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Steve Goldstein. Dean Michael Stamos and Vice Dean of Education Khanh-Van Le-Bucklin spoke from podiums 6 feet apart on the stage. Students, along with a family member or friend, watched from their cars, then circled through the School of Medicine parking lot to a designated location where both people stepped out and the family member or friend ceremonially hooded the graduate.

The 4:30-7:30 p.m. proceedings were livestreamed at: https://vimeo.com/415743739. And it was broadcasted on UCI’s KUCI radio station (88.9 FM).

The drive-thru event was just one way medical students have had to adapt to the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the school to make changes for the final quarter of instruction. For most of April, the students did not participate in direct patient care as their mentors addressed COVID-19. The coronavirus has upended plans and forced hard conversations about the challenges and dangers inherent in a healthcare career.

“Our students are some of the most dedicated people I know. With the coronavirus, I think most of them realized that this is why they went into medicine,” says Le-Bucklin. “They’ve sought ways to support their mentors and co-workers on the front lines. They want to help people who are hurting or dying or in need, and they want to be there for the families to help them through the grieving process.”

The quarantine prompted School of Medicine student Richelle Roelandt Lu Homo to reflect on her goals. Homo, who was part of the drive-thru commencement ceremony, will seek to become a physician-leader with a deep understanding of the unique determinants of health that affect military families, and she’ll serve a pediatrics residency at Madigan Army Medical Center on Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

When Homo was a child, her parents worked multiple jobs and odd schedules to ensure the family’s survival, forcing her to become the primary caregiver for her brother, who has Down syndrome, and a sister seven years younger than her. Later, when Homo was a UCI undergraduate, she worked in a long-term acute care hospital – an experience that allowed her to see medicine as the intersection of science, humanism and ethics.

“My peers and I are graduating during a very unusual period in medicine. It’s frightening as the pandemic reveals our own vulnerabilities and those of the people we love. Yet, at the same time, it’s energizing in that as we continue to pledge to be lifelong students of medicine, the pandemic is also showing us our strength,” Homo says. “And for me, it calls me more powerfully into the vocation of healing and serving others.”

Through the spring quarter, UCI’s response to the crisis shifted quickly, with medical students staying on their rotations at first, then being taken off for safety reasons as the pandemic worsened. Only at the end of April did they reintegrate back into the clinical environment.

“All the students have accomplished so much. They’re really impressive people – and talented – and they’ve worked so hard. They’ve dealt with a lot of change in the last four months,” says Dr. Megan Osborn, the school’s associate dean of students. “They obviously went into medicine for the right reasons. They’re stepping up and saying they still want to learn and they still want to help.”

Students have displayed profound generosity. They organized drives to gather personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, walked doctors’ dogs, volunteered to manufacture face shields, staffed a commissary providing household necessities to medical workers and translated healthcare materials for Spanish-speaking community members.

“The innate thing that brought them to medicine is still so present. They’re still so compassionate and willing to give of themselves,” Osborn says. “Medicine is a field that’s tough emotionally right now, and I think they’re getting a pretty big taste of that. They’ll see that in residency, and they’re getting an early glimpse of what it’ll be like.”

Thalia Nguyen, co-president of the School of Medicine’s graduating class, originally chose medicine as a way to pursue the American dream but has since come to recognize the profound impact she can have on achieving health equity and improving health literacy.

UCI was her top choice for medical school, in part because the patient demographics at UCI Medical Center – which include underserved Hispanic and Vietnamese people – reflect both the community she wants to serve and her own immigrant family. She elected to specialize in family medicine to gain the widest breadth of skills possible.

Nguyen, who’s playing a key role in organizing the drive-thru ceremony so that it complies with social distancing and safety measures, was surprised at how quickly the idea gained approval from the multiple administrators who needed to sign off.

“It’s remarkable to have faculty who’ll do the most they can to ensure that we have a memorable, though unconventional, way to mark this significant milestone,” she says.

Graduating student Leesa Li pursued medicine because she wants to do the most good in the world with the skills she possesses. For her, that means pediatrics and helping children achieve their fullest potential.

COVID-19 hasn’t changed Li’s plans at all. “If anything, this is just a reminder that in medicine, gratification is delayed but worthwhile and the learning never stops,” she says.