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‘How sweet will that be?’

Touro dental school's inaugural graduating class to celebrate virtually amid COVID-19 pandemic

May 06, 2020

By Kimber Solana

Photo of Touro’s class of 2020
First class: Touro College of Dental Medicine class of 2020 will become the inaugural graduating class of the first dental school in New York in 50 years. 
Westchester County, N.Y. — The excitement started building early this year for the graduation of Touro College of Dental Medicine at New York Medical College's inaugural class, which in 2016 became the first dental school in New York to open in 50 years.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Over the past few weeks, I, like most, have had to pause and remind myself that this is not a bad dream,” said dental student Morgan Atanasio, student body president. “Who would have thought that with two months left until graduation, our world would undergo such a tumultuous shift?”

The ceremony would have celebrated the more than 100 students who took a chance in 2016 on the once-empty campus. In the next four years, they created clubs and student government, started an American Student Dental Association local chapter, conducted research and treated residents in the community.

Their graduation ceremony was scheduled to be held at the Westchester County Center. But in March, the center was converted to house hospital beds as part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes then switched to distance learning, and the students have sheltered in place ever since, scattered around the country.

“Now, we’re no longer together,” said Dr. Ronnie Myers, Touro College of Dental Medicine dean. “And to me that’s very sad and upsetting to me.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Myers said, nothing is going to stop the school from applauding these students.
   
On May 27, the dental school will conduct a virtual “Celebration of the Class of 2020” via Zoom for the class of 2020. With a mixture of live presentations and prerecorded videos, the graduates will get a chance to be together and recap the past four years.
   
Photo of Touro’s white coat ceremony
White coat: Touro College of Dental Medicine at New York Medical’s class of 2020 during their white coat ceremony held June 7, 2018. 
“We’ll be celebrating where they came from and where they are going,” Dr. Myers said, noting that about 85 of the graduates have matched to residency programs.
   
The celebration will take place eight days after the entire New York Medical College campus' May 19 prerecorded virtual commencement ceremony, similar to what several other dental schools are opting for during the pandemic.

At Touro’s virtual commencement ceremony, the students will take their oath, and the names of each graduate from the dental school, along with graduates from the Graduate School of Basic Science, the School of Health Science and Practice and the New York Medical College of New York State, will be read. The ceremony will stream live at nymc.edu/commencement.

In honor of the dental school’s inaugural graduating class, the college-wide ceremony will hear from two prominent dentists: Dr. Bruce Donoff, M.D., former dean of Harvard School of Dental Medicine; and Dr. Chad P. Gehani, ADA president.

“I had the pleasure of being the first dentist from the ADA to address this class four years ago,” Dr. Gehani said. “Graduation symbolizes their induction within the practice of dentistry. The title of ‘doctor’ confers tremendous responsibility. These students should be proud that they are the first class of what will be a long legacy.”
   
The celebration doesn’t end there. Dr. Myers said the dental school plans to hold an in-person celebration for the graduating class at some point in the future.

Photo of Ms. Atanasio
Ms. Atanasio
“Someday, somehow,” he said. “These individuals deserve recognition for what they accomplished. They made this community, they made us who we are, and they took a chance on us. I call them my trailblazers.”

Touro College of Dental Medicine held its grand opening ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 28, 2016, with its first 112 students. The dental school includes a four-year pre-doctoral program for students, a continuing education program for practicing dentists, and a 109-chair community dental clinic.

“As New York State's first new dental school in nearly half a century and the only dental school in the Hudson Valley, the Touro College of Dental Medicine at NYMC will fill a void in dental education and improve access to oral health care, particularly in underserved rural and urban communities throughout the region,” Alan Kadish, M.D., president of the Touro College and University System, told ADA News in 2016.

Today, the dental school has grown to 432 students and 90 faculty members, and its clinic welcomes about 200 patients a day.

Photo of Dr. Myers
Dr. Myers
“As dental students in the inaugural class, we have grown accustomed to an expectation vs. reality lifestyle and we have practiced the need to adjust when things are not what they were supposed to be,” said Ms. Atanasio.

She recalls arriving to a brand-new school without a classroom or laboratory yet in place.

“When we joined a newly established dental clinic still working out operational kinks, we adapted and persevered,” Ms. Atanasio said.

The students will now have to continue to adapt and persevere as they move forward with their careers as new dentists in this age of COVID-19.

“We will celebrate even more when this ends,” Ms. Atanasio said. “It’s not a matter of how, it’s only a matter of when. How sweet will that be?”