Commencement, summer vacation, and the importance of rest and renewal

Dear Colleagues,

Last week, we celebrated a commencement week unlike any other. After two years of social distancing, remote meetups, and seemingly endless Zoom calls, the return to in-person graduation ceremonies was nothing short of outstanding. It was incredibly cathartic and rewarding to walk down 168th Street and see our smiling graduates in their Columbia blue regalia. (Interestingly, Columbia was one of the first American universities to embrace graduation regalia, and many of the custom’s standard traditions were first established right here in 1894. The more you know.)

We honored not one but three classes of Columbia graduates, as the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022 all gathered for commencement celebrations on the Morningside campus. On the medical campus, we celebrated graduates of all four schools in the Armory—a fitting venue, considering that so many of our students volunteered their talents to the vaccination effort there and helped turn the tide of the pandemic in New York City. We welcomed one of my personal heroes at the VP&S ceremony, New York State Department of Health Commissioner and VP&S alumna Mary Bassett, who delivered a phenomenal keynote address on health equity. My thanks to Dr. Bassett and all of our speakers, and my sincerest congratulations to our graduates and our colleagues who took home faculty awards. It was a week like no other for a group of graduates like no other, and it was an absolute joy being with all of you.

I especially want to thank everybody who makes this special season possible. Tina Hansen and her CUIMC events team are integral to this effort every year. Tina is a 21-year veteran of CUIMC, and she’s been running graduation for 17 of those years. She was practically omnipotent this year as she organized, staged, and oversaw eight medical campus ceremonies and the work of more than 170 CUIMC volunteers, all of whom happily took on a second job for the week. Hosting graduation is a massive undertaking, requiring the services of fire safety, disability services, Health on Haven medical staff, public safety, and many more groups. We also owe a special thanks to Amador Centeno and the Facilities Management and Campus Services group, who spend months preparing the campus for our graduates and guests. Their painting, planting, and sprucing ensure that the campus is at its welcoming best during commencement week.

Of the many instances of generosity on display last week, one stands out as representing the very best of our community. Patty Conde, an employee and volunteer, found a meaningful way to include a young man with an intellectual disability in our graduation festivities. It was a simple but special act of kindness that led his mother to write a note of thanks, saying that her family was “heading home with full hearts.”

I hope that all of us will embrace this spirit and take the opportunity to help somebody in need. Our commencement volunteers do that and more, and I deeply appreciate their selfless contributions. My thanks to Tina, Amador, Patty, and all of our captains, employees, and volunteers who contributed to this special week. Many of us dream of graduation our entire lives, and your work ensures that the memory lasts a lifetime.

With graduation behind us and Memorial Day Weekend ahead, it feels like summer has truly arrived. (It certainly announced its arrival with last weekend’s sweltering heat—though, as an Alabamian, you won’t hear me complaining about warmer weather.) With summer upon us, I want to stress how important it is to take vacation time. Especially this year, with all we have endured, it is important to take time for replenishment and renewal. I will be headed to Maine this weekend to spend time with my family and pets (Eggemoggin and Buckle, a pair of rambunctious water-loving dogs, and Hector, our comparatively reserved cat). We’ll be celebrating my daughter’s delayed college graduation on Saturday and then heading straight for the water. Being by the ocean has always been my way of recharging, and you can take it from me that vacation is the best tool we have for combatting burnout. I hope every one of us will use it.

Of course, time away isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for work-life harmony. It’s important to acknowledge how demanding our work truly is and to be wary of burnout, even during this celebratory season. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I want to take the opportunity to thank Chief Well-Being Officer Lou Baptista, who has overseen CUIMC’s CopeColumbia initiative since its inception in April of 2020. Lou and the entire CopeColumbia group have provided peer support services, seminars, town halls, and so much more to support our faculty and staff during these historically difficult years. My heartfelt thanks to Lou, program director Claude Mellins, program coordinator Chireau White, and CopeColumbia faculty members Colleen Cullen, Laurel Mayer, Erin Engle, Elizabeth Fitelson, Patrice Malone, Jared O’Garro-Moore, Sheau-Yan Ho, Robert Remien, Sara Nash, Deborah Glasofer, Anne Marie Albano, and Michael Devlin. You have gone above and beyond to meet these challenges and your support is felt throughout the entire medical center.

If you’ve eagerly skipped ahead looking for the key takeaways of my latest letter, know that my most critical message to you this summer is simple: Set your out-of-office message, take some time for yourself, and spend it doing whatever brings you joy and peace. You’ve earned it. 

All my best,

Katrina Armstrong, MD 
Chief Executive Officer, Columbia University Irving Medical Center 
Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons