Commencement 2021: CUIMC Student Stories
Though the uncertainties of the pandemic forced CUIMC graduation ceremonies online for a second year, the caliber of students graduating from programs across CUIMC remains a constant. Read more about some of our medical, public health, nursing, and dental graduates.
Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
David Alvarez Cespedes
A fascination with the intricate ways that “bugs” cause disease drew David Alvarez Cespedes to medicine. He graduates in the Class of 2021 with an MD and an MS in biomedical engineering and is bound for an internship in preliminary medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, followed by a dermatology residency at the University of Miami and Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Alvarez Cespedes was born in Colombia to parents who are both computer engineers and later raised primarily in Miami.
“As an immigrant from Colombia, I remember my own struggles with learning English, assimilating into American culture, and feeling like I don’t belong,” he says. “During my clinical experiences in medical school, I served many immigrants going through similar struggles. I hope throughout my career, I can bridge that disconnect and care for and advocate for patients who normally would feel out of place and unempowered in the hospital and clinic.”
As a member of the first class of VP&S Equity and Justice Fellows, Lauren Fields was among several students selected to work on anti-racist education innovation within the medical school curriculum.
“I’m most proud of our efforts to magnify the voices and experiences of students who are underrepresented in medicine, whether through advocating for more student representation in curricular planning groups or ensuring that student feedback is appropriately translated into real curricular change,” she says.
Fields, who is also a poet, graduates with an MD and begins her residency in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital this summer.
With her MD in hand, Stephanie Granada is the first in her family to graduate from college and medical school. She was drawn to VP&S due to its location in the urban, predominantly Spanish-speaking community of Washington Heights.
Throughout medical school, Granada made the most of campus activities and served as one of the co-leaders of the First-Generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP).
“Joining FLIP was one of the first times I saw my story in other people in academia,” says Granada. “For example, we talked about our families being on food stamps and Medicaid, and it was just understood that we all knew what the other was talking about it. It was a shared language. It was important to me because as a first-generation, low-income student, you have to code-switch a lot or explain your backstory, and this was one of the first times I didn’t have to do that.”
When Andrew Sudler took a year off from medical school, he did something few VP&S students think to try: He served as a mitigation specialist at a public interest law firm, a role that entailed working on both capital and non-capital cases.
“My job was to create trauma-informed social histories of clients’ lives that are used to assist in their defense,” he says. “I interviewed clients and their family, reviewed records, and researched historical and public health data to contextualize clients’ lived experiences. This work taught me how individuals with public health and medical training can use their skills to help advocate against inhumane prison sentences and advocate for access to social and health services.”
Sudler, who identifies as a prison abolitionist, graduates with an MD and is headed for a residency in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. He plans to continue advocating against social injustice and addressing the mental health implications of incarceration.
School of Nursing
Chelsa Greene, a graduate of the Doctor of Nursing Practice in the Family Nurse Practitioner Program, is now a nurse practitioner resident in Washington state. She plans to devote her career to providing primary care in underserved communities.
"As we navigate through this new way of life, a career in nursing has given me immense gratitude for not only the role we play in our patients’ lives, but also the one that they play in ours," Greene says. "We get to know our patients well, their risk factors and strengths, and think of them beyond when the clock hits 5 p.m."
Kirsten Gutlay, a graduate of the Doctor of Nursing Practice in the Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Program, cared for COVID-19 patients as an RN during the first peak of the pandemic and answered calls for the COVID-19 Student Service Corps Hotline.
"I felt tested as a nurse in every way [early in the pandemic]," says Gutlay. "And even more importantly, I felt that my role as a nurse in public was just as important as my role at work in the clinical setting. Being a role model on health advocacy is an important aspect of nursing, which I think is often overlooked."
Now a cardiology nurse practitioner, she plans to help develop new nurse practitioner orientations and continuing education.
Remy Klugman, a graduate of the School of Nursing's Masters Direct Entry Program, has a passion for exploring the specialties, concentrations, and career opportunities available in nursing. This natural curiosity led her to co-found A Day in the Life, which invites practicing nurses to speak with nursing students about their experiences.
"It is such a gratifying feeling to care for patients and their families during the most vulnerable times of their lives," says Klugman.
At the peak of the pandemic, Nicole Ramirez, a graduate of the Nurse Anesthesia Program, returned to work as an intensive care unit nurse.
“The pandemic has shown me that my calling to be a nurse was the best decision I could ever make," says Ramirez, who plans to continue studying for her Doctor of Nursing Practice while working as a certified registered nurse anesthetist.
Ramirez received a 2020-2021 Graduate Nursing Scholarship from Nurses Educational Funds Inc.
Jessica Schwartz, a graduate of the School of Nursing's PhD Program, is pursuing a career that blends her passions for social good, technology, and informatics. Her next stop is Columbia University’s Department of Biomedical Informatics, where she will be a National Library of Medicine postdoctoral fellow. She received the American Medical Informatics Association Distinguished Poster Award for her poster, “Clinician Involvement in Research on Machine-Learning-Based Clinical Decision Support for the Hospital Setting: A Scoping Review.”
"Ultimately, the pandemic has reinforced to me that nurses have been historically undervalued in society," says Schwartz. "The pandemic has reignited my passion for changing that and elevating the way that nurses are perceived because we are changemakers, thought leaders, and essential to our communities."
Aaron Yagoda, a graduate of the School of Nursing's Masters Direct Entry Program, plans to work as an RN in an inpatient setting and will continue in the Doctor of Nursing Practice Family Nurse Practitioner Program. He cared for COVID-19 patients this past winter as a nurse technician and helped administer COVID vaccines at the Armory.
"We began our nursing careers online, during a global pandemic, in a country reckoning with a wave of violent racism, and carried on," says Yagoda. "That’s really something."
College of Dental Medicine
As past president of the American Student Dental Association, Sydney Shapiro has been advocating for change on behalf of dental students across the country. She was named a 2021 Campbell Award winner for exceptional leadership and Columbia spirit.
Shapiro was 7 or 8 when she knew she wanted to be a dentist. "I loved my orthodontist and pediatric dentist, and I wanted to be just like them," she says. "I like the balance between science and art, building relationships with patients, and educating them on oral health." Shapiro also earned an MPH at the Mailman School of Public Health along with her DDS.
Kyle Sevel is tackling knowledge gaps and disparities around LGBTQ oral health and helped found iDENTity CDM, the dental school’s first LGBTQ+ organization.
Because LGBTQ health has not been studied as extensively as other fields, particularly in dentistry, “it’s important to figure out what the issues are regarding LGBTQ patients and their oral health," Sevel says. "From there, we can figure out how to do better and fix [those issues]." His leadership efforts at CDM were recently recognized nationally with the American Dental Association Foundation’s Whiston Leadership Award.
Mailman School of Public Health
During her MPH coursework, Francis Rojina, learned about period poverty and advocacy strategies and before graduating had already scored a legislative victory using her new knowledge. This spring, she testified in front of the Oregon State Legislature in support of House Bill 3294, which requires public schools in Oregon to provide menstrual products like pads and tampons at no cost.
"As public health professionals, we should strive to use our knowledge and experience to be agents of change and advocate for important issues," she says. "I chose to advocate for House Bill 3294 so that people who menstruate have the chance to live full and productive lives without the worries of accessing necessary menstrual products."
Rojina currently works as a diversity coordinator at the Oregon Health Science University School of Nursing.
George Timmins, an MPH graduate in sociomedical sciences, addressed students at Mailman’s graduation ceremony, reflecting on the sometimes painful moments of being a student during the pandemic and a period of heightened systemic injustices. In speaking of these experiences, Timmins encouraged fellow graduates to “wear them as our badge of surviving and still succeeding.”
During his time at Columbia, Timmins served as a co-leader of MENTOR—a study initiated by students in the Social and Economic Determinants of Health course taught by Kim Hopper, PhD. Through this work, Timmins collaborated with faculty adviser Robert Fullilove, EdD, to work with community groups in Northern Manhattan to understand their pandemic experiences, assess their unmet needs, and support community programming to meet those needs. Their efforts sought to include vulnerable groups within the community, such as recent immigrants, incarcerated individuals, and racial and ethnic minorities.