On May 12, nearly 120 University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson students will receive their medical degrees in Centennial Hall, where they will take the Hippocratic Oath and be draped with an academic hood to represent their initiation into the field of medicine.
“These students have spent the bulk of their medical school education and their clinical rotations with a front-row seat to the pandemic. They understand the challenges their careers might have in store for them and are enthusiastic about rising up to meet those challenges,” said Michael M.I. Abecassis, MD, MBA, dean of the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson. “I am so proud of the Class of 2022. Their curiosity, compassion and the training they have received here will be with them wherever they go as they continue on their journeys as physicians.”
The 116 newly minted physicians will begin residency training programs this summer, dispersed across 63 hospitals in 28 states. They will pursue specialties in areas such as orthopaedic surgery, psychiatry, emergency medicine and family medicine. Additionally, three graduates will receive doctorates as part of the dual MD-PhD program.
An important step in addressing the state- and nationwide primary care physician shortage, more than a third of the graduates will remain in Arizona, and more than half will go into primary care. Additionally, as part of the college’s commitment to nurturing culturally competent care, five graduating medical students are past participants in the Pre-Medical Admissions Pathway (P-MAP) Program, an intensive medical school preparation program designed for those who experienced greater-than-average challenges in applying to medical school.
In addition to welcoming remarks by Dean Abecassis, convocation attendees will hear from keynote speaker Joan Reede, MD, MS, MPH, MBA, dean for diversity and community partnership at Harvard University Medical School. Theresa Cullen, MD, MS, clinical associate professor of family and community medicine and member of the College of Medicine – Tucson Class of 1983, will address the graduates in her capacity as the college’s 2021 Alumni of the Year. Aaron Masjedi was elected by his peers to give the student graduation address. Degrees will be conferred by University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins, MD, and Dean Abecassis will administer the Hippocratic Oath and deliver closing remarks.
Beyond the MD: Celebrating a variety of graduates
The College of Medicine – Tucson also confers degrees to undergraduate and graduate students, who will be honored in separate graduation ceremonies. On May 13, Bachelor of Science degrees will be awarded to 199 graduates majoring in physiology and medical sciences.
“Physiology and medical sciences is the third-most popular major selected by new freshmen, and the fourth-most popular bachelor’s degree awarded — so they finish with us as well,” said Claudia Stanescu, PhD, associate professor and director of undergraduate programs for the Department of Physiology. “It’s one of only 14 physiology-related majors in the country, and the only one that is run through a college of medicine. That’s a benefit to the students because they get expertise from very well-known faculty.”
Joining the physiology and medical sciences graduates will be five graduates of the new Bachelor of Science in Emergency Medical Services program, launched in 2019. It will be the first commencement ceremony for students completing this program.
“Two people graduated in the winter and five are graduating this spring,” said Joshua Gaither, MD, FACEP, professor of emergency medicine and director of the EMS degree program. “There are only about 15 to 20 other programs in the U.S. that offer a bachelor’s degree in EMS. Many EMS agencies require a bachelor’s degree to go up for a promotion, and our Bachelor of Science is targeted at paramedics, giving them that extra knowledge necessary to be a leader in the EMS system.”
On May 11, 21 students in the Bioscience Graduate Programs will receive seven Master of Science degrees in cellular and molecular medicine, five Master of Science degrees in genetic counseling, four Master of Science and three doctorates in medical pharmacology, and two doctorates in clinical and translational science.
College of Medicine – Tucson students receiving master’s degrees and doctorates will gather on May 11 at 7 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom in a ceremony that is open to the public and does not require tickets. Students receiving medical degrees will gather on May 12 at 2 p.m. in Centennial Hall. Tickets are required and event will also be livestreamed; for more information, visit medicine.arizona.edu/admissions/annual-event/convocation. Undergraduate students receiving bachelor’s degrees will gather on May 13 at 2 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom. Tickets are required, and the RSVP deadline has passed. More information about UArizona commencement ceremonies can be found at commencement.arizona.edu.
Meet the College of Medicine – Tucson Class of 2022
Cassandra Villa: ‘I felt electrified’
Tucson native and first-generation college graduate Cassandra Villa will begin her residency training in general surgery at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, the latest milestone on a life journey filled with many twists and turns.
As a young adult Villa struggled.
“After I graduated from high school, I went straight to the University of Arizona, but it was a really rough year for me academically,” Villa recalled. Unprepared for the rigors of college, she withdrew from the university.
“For almost seven years, I was a bartender. I had fun and I partied, but I was not being responsible,” she said. “I ended up with a DUI, and realized I needed to change my course in life. These life experiences drove me, because I saw places where my life was going where I didn’t want it to be.”
Determined to make a change, Villa’s new direction in life led her to community college, where she quickly realized she had what it took to be successful in school. With her newfound confidence, she transferred to the University of Arizona, where she majored in psychology and graduated with honors.
In exploring her career options, she was intrigued by psychiatry, but the prospect of medical school was daunting.
“I thought, ‘Medical students are other people’s kids, not me,’” she recalled. “But I couldn’t shake it.”
Worried that her past would be an obstacle to being admitted to medical school, she sought advice from an academic adviser, who noted that Villa had turned her life around and had learned valuable lessons from her experiences. Reassured, Villa decided to apply to medical school and sought health care experience by volunteering as a scribe in emergency departments, where her eyes were opened to medical specialties outside of psychiatry.
“I was watching them reduce fractures and intubate people. I wanted to do more hands-on things, but I didn’t think that was an option for me. Surgery was for other people,” she recalled.
Encouraged by her academic adviser, Villa applied and was accepted to the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson as a member of the Class of 2022.
During her trauma surgery rotations as a student, she came face to face with reminders of her earlier life experiences and empathized with patients in often extreme circumstances.
“I looked at the course of my life and knew that I was probably only mere moments away from becoming a victim in a car accident or a bystander in a violent altercation,” she recalled. “I could be nonjudgmental and say, ‘I’m no better than this person.’ It’s my job to make sure they’re OK, and hope that this moment will change the course of their life.”
She says her surgery rotations in her third year of medical school convinced her she was in the right place.
“You see some of the most tragic things in the world, but you also see some of the most amazing things. I saw a baby’s beating heart. I’ve seen a human brain pulsing. I saw a kidney come back to life,” she recalled. “Those are the things that I talk about and my eyes light up. The first day I scrubbed in, I drove home and I felt electrified.”
Jacob Sorenson: ‘Do something you enjoy’
Mesa native Jacob Sorenson says he was first pushed toward medicine in the years between high school and college when he participated in a church service mission.
“I was in Mozambique for two years and saw a lot of the difficulties of not having a great health care system and how it affects an entire population — and what great physicians could do when they came to help,” he recalled. “That was the first big lightbulb moment for me.”
During his undergraduate years, he worked as a physical therapy assistant, a role that brought him into contact with both patients and orthopaedic surgeons. He saw first-hand the immediate impact orthopaedic surgeons could have on patients’ quality of life.
“It fit exactly what I’m looking for in a career. I get to work with my hands, and that is going to directly benefit patients,” he said. His experience as a medical student further cemented his interest in pursuing the field. “The orthopaedic surgeons and residents loved coming to work, and that rubbed off on me. Your work is something you’re going to do every day of your life. You want to do something that you enjoy.”
By attending community college and public universities — and applying for as many scholarships as he could find — Sorenson is graduating from medical school debt-free.
“I don’t come from a family with a ton of money, and I didn’t want to go into debt,” Sorenson said. “It’s an incredible feeling to get through it all and have people supporting you.”
Along with his immediate family members, another special guest will watch Sorenson receive his degree next week. His community college honors advisor will be there to watch her former student reach this milestone in his educational journey.
“She is basically like my second mom and is one of the reasons I got to this point,” he said. “She helped me envision the bigger picture and has been about as influential as anyone could be in someone’s life.”
Sorenson and his wife are preparing to move to Texas with their newborn daughter to begin his residency training at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center.
“I’m looking forward to honing those skills to be the best surgeon I can be and take care of any patient who comes in the door,” he said. “And, even though my family has been around since they settled in Mesa in the 1880s, my wife and I want to make our mark somewhere else in the country.”
Austen Lowell Thompson, PhD: ‘I’m excited to get to work’
Phoenix native and first-generation college student Austen Lowell Thompson, PhD, entered the college’s MD-PhD program in 2015, completing his doctorate in 2020. His doctoral research focused on orthopedic pain, and in the future he would like to run a translational research lab to find alternatives to opioids. He will begin an orthopaedic surgery residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“It’s an ideal place to train and learn. I’m very excited to get to work,” he said. “They have the best surgeons in the world and are world renowned for the balance of research and academic surgery. You learn from the best teachers possible, and at the same time, some of the best research in the world comes out of the Mayo Clinic.”
During his clinical rotations, Dr. Thompson appreciated the team-oriented atmosphere in the operating room, which reminded him of his years as a seven-time NCAA Division I All-American competitive swimmer at UArizona, during which time he won a national title in the 400-meter individual medley.
“My athletic background has shaped how I view challenges. If you want to be the best, you have to push yourself in every way and understand how to regroup after things go wrong,” he said. “Those are personality traits that shaped me back then, and that’s something I really leaned on as an MD-PhD student.”
Dr. Thompson received his bachelor’s degree in physiology from the College of Medicine – Tucson, as well as a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cell biology from the College of Science, in 2012. His experience at the University of Arizona was so positive that he stayed for graduate school, enrolling in the MD-PhD program.
“I feel a deep connection to the University of Arizona. I felt well supported and that was helpful to my success,” Dr. Thompson said. “I kept coming back for more degrees for a reason.”
Madina Jahed: ‘A dream come true’
Madina Jahed will begin a psychiatry residency at her top choice, Stanford University.
“All my family is in the Bay Area, so to be able to match back home and be with them, and also in one of the Top 10 psych programs, it’s like a dream come true,” she said. “I’m thankful for the support and mentorship I got at the University of Arizona because without it, I would not be at Stanford.”
Jahed spent her early years in Afghanistan, moving to San Jose, California, with her family when she was 7 years old. She says her early memories of the Taliban regime played a part in her attraction to psychiatry.
“Growing up amongst war, I knew mental health really affected our physical health, so I wanted to dedicate my career to that,” she said. “I wanted to address the mental and emotional needs of patients, because I saw it as something that was lacking in my own culture.”
As a medical student she worked toward a distinction in community service, which entailed participating in the Commitment to Underserved People (CUP) Clinics Program, which provides care to the Tucson community under the supervision of volunteer attending physicians.
“I’m dedicated to serving communities in medically underserved populations, and I want to focus on refugee and immigrant populations. That’s always been a passion of mine,” she said.
Caylan Bookman: ‘I’m excited to grow’
This summer, Phoenix native Caylan Bookman will begin a psychiatry residency at Yale University, his top choice.
“It felt surreal,” he said of learning where he’d spend the next few years of his training. “As a first-year medical student with impostor syndrome, I never thought that was a program I could be at. It took a lot of mentors, friends and family telling me I should go after my dreams.”
He says Yale’s program appealed to him for its commitment to Black trainees.
“They graduate the most Black psychiatry residents outside of an HBCU,” he said. “I needed to be somewhere where I could see myself reflected, where I felt supported by people who understand what I’m going through as we navigate this difficult journey of residency. It’s going to make a difference and let me really thrive.”
He says he’s been passionate about mental health for years, and knew from “day one” that he wanted to practice psychiatry.
“Mental health is not talked about enough, especially in my community. People really need to know that it’s OK not to be OK,” he said. “I’m hoping I can be a voice to show we don’t have to have the stigma that we have associated with mental health.”
For the first time in his life, he’ll be living outside of Arizona.
“I am nervous about moving to the cold, but I’m excited to do something new, to grow,” he said. “It’s going to be a great opportunity to learn.”
Because he is a recipient of the Primary Care Physician Scholarship, he’ll be returning to Arizona when his training in Connecticut is complete, and hopes to open a clinic in Phoenix to work with patients from marginalized backgrounds.
Brianna Dolana, MS: ‘My top program’
Native Tucsonan and first-generation college student Brianna Dolana, MS, was raised by a single mother living below the poverty line, which often led to challenges accessing health care. She recalls instances when compassionate doctors helped her family avoid high medical bills and says these acts of kindness inspired her to pursue medicine so she could give back to her community in a similar manner.
Dolana received her undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Arizona. Between degrees, she became a certified EMT and worked on an ambulance for two-and-a-half years.
“That’s when I fell in love with emergency medicine,” she said. “I really enjoy that it’s something different every day.”
The experience solidified for her that medicine was the right path, and this summer she will begin an emergency medicine residency at Banner – UMC Tucson through the College of Medicine – Tucson. She says she was happy — and relieved — to match into this program.
“I have family here, I have support here,” she said. “This is just my top program.”
Dolana is also pleased to remain in Tucson because it means she’ll be able to continue her involvement in a mentorship program she launched with other medical students. The program, called THE MAZE (Teen Healthcare Education and Mentorship, an Arizona Effort), connects medical students with underrepresented students interested in pursuing higher education.
“We want to help our community get out of poverty and to increase access to education,” she said. “I didn’t know how to apply to college, and I wouldn’t be in medical school if hadn’t luckily found my way there. There were so many questions along the way, and I didn’t want that to be the case for anyone else.”
Her favorite memory at the College of Medicine – Tucson overlapped with the culmination of the Life Cycle block in fall 2019, when she gave birth to her daughter.
“I learned all about the reproductive cycle and the lifecycle of a baby, and then a week or two before the final, I had my daughter,” Dolana said. “That was one of the happiest times.”
Anna Ressel and Radu Moga: ‘We’re very happy’
Anna Ressel and Radu Moga were married in April, and are excited to begin their marriage and careers as co-residents at Banner – UMC South through the College of Medicine – Tucson South Campus. They will practice family medicine, a field they say facilitates meaningful relationships between patients and physicians.
“Family medicine is a field where I can truly get to know people, learn from them and be a partner in their health care,” Moga said.
They are both completing distinctions in rural health, which included clinical rotations in rural communities.
“I loved getting to know the patients, the town and the culture,” Ressel said of her time in Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona. “Radu would come visit on the weekends and we would hike and try new restaurants and roast marshmallows in the backyard. It was all very picturesque and annoyingly wholesome.”
Moga says one of his most rewarding experiences was a rotation with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He interacted with them not just in the clinic, but also in their workplaces, homes and at the Special Olympics.
“I got to know people as people, and not just patients,” he said.
Both Ressel and Moga are recipients of the Primary Care Physician scholarship, a program that covers tuition for medical students who commit to practice primary care in underserved communities in Arizona. They both look forward to fulfilling that commitment after they complete their residencies.
“After training in several rural sites across the state, I have developed a love for the people of Arizona,” said Ressel, who grew up in Sparks, Nevada. “I feel at home here.”
“Arizona has been my home my whole life,” added Moga, who was raised in Surprise, Arizona, by parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Romania. “I have been given so much, and now I want to give back.”