Dr. Kimberly Zien Huynh walked across the stage in the parking lot of the WSU Spokane Health Sciences building wearing the same outfit and shoes she wore nearly four years ago, when she first donned her white lab coat.
“It felt like coming full circle,” said Huynh, who’s bound for residency in obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA, after receiving her medical degree. “I just wanted some physical representation of that symbolism. We’ve come so far as a medical school.”
The Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, championed by the late WSU president for whom the school is named, sent its first 121 students into the medical field as part of a virtual and drive-thru ceremony Thursday. Of those, 55 received medical doctor degrees, 25 earned degrees in nutrition and exercise physiology and 41 in speech and hearing sciences. Masks and socially distanced photographs took the place of hugs, but for many, the moment was surreal beyond the pandemic.
“Being part of the first class, we helped to build this school,” said Dr. Katie Schmidt, who will start her residency in family medicine next month at Swedish in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood. “Our faculty and administrators did a lot to make it a good experience for us, but we did a lot to make it better.”
A line of cars were welcomed by faculty holding “Go Cougs!” signs beneath white, crimson and gray balloons. Each of those students was inspired to apply four years ago to a school that had just been formed, and whose mission is to increase physician availability in Washington, especially rural areas.
“There’s a need for more doctors in the state, particularly in underserved areas,” said Schmidt. “And I think a large proportion of us are planning, even if we’re not training in the state, to come back.”
Huynh said she was inspired to pursue medicine because of her family, particularly her parents, who came to the United States as refugees during the Vietnam War.
“I really wanted to take care of women,” she said. “I have some very strong women in my family – grandma, my aunt, my mother, of course – I just really want to take care of women who look like me, and my mom, and other people who really just need help.”
Commencement began Thursday morning with a virtual ceremony including speakers who detailed the college’s long road to approval. That included Carmento Floyd, the widow of Elson Floyd.
“I asked myself, why would Elson Floyd be celebrating today? He loved graduations, by the way,” Carmento Floyd told the virtual audience. “The answer, quite frankly, is he believed all of you – individually and collectively – will accomplish greatness.”
Schmidt said she was struck by the well-wishes of Carmento Floyd.
“A lot of medical schools are named after a famous donor,” she said. “Our medical school is named after a person who was so mission-driven, and just wanted to improve the education of doctors, and improve care.”
Rich Hadley, who served as president and chief executive officer of Greater Spokane Incorporated in the years when local officials were seeking approval, and later accreditation, for the school, told graduates the story of a visit to Olympia with then-Gov. Christine Gregoire to make their case in the middle of a snowstorm.
“The blizzard in Olympia canceled almost all appointments,” Hadley said. “But our meeting with Gov. Gregoire, at her mansion, happened. And she said, ‘I knew all these appointments might go away except one, and that was Spokane.’ ”
Not only did boosters need funding to establish the college, they also had to change a provision in state law that limited Washington to one medical school. That bill was eventually signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, who also congratulated graduates virtually while also tasking them with a very specific, pandemic-related charge.
“We need you right now to share information so that more people will be confident to get this vaccine,” Inslee said. “We all know what the science is, and if you share that in the upcoming weeks – you have tremendous credibility now – you can move the needle starting today.”
That was also one of the messages of Bechara Choucair, the coordinator of President Joe Biden’s vaccine program, who delivered the ceremony’s commencement address. While Choucair encouraged graduates to get vaccinated and spread the word about the availability of vaccines, he also challenged the students to tackle community health issues and consider patient care beyond the walls of a hospital.
“The truth is, people may spend a few hours with a health care professional each year,” Choucair, who previously served as chief health officer for Kaiser Permanente, said. “But we spend a lifetime in our communities, and an unhealthy community cannot be expected to support thriving people.”
Huynh said she appreciated that message as she begins her residency work.
“I resonate a lot with his story,” she said. “He’s an immigrant as well. That was very heartwarming, and touching, for me to hear. Somebody who has been so successful, and to have gotten where he’s gotten and have a similar background as me.”
Schmidt was joined by her husband, Ian Faulkner, during the drive-thru ceremony. The two are headed back to Everett for a bit of rest before Schmidt starts her residency.
Huynh was joined by her boyfriend of six years, Jason Alvarez. He said it was clear to him that Huynh’s motivation for medicine was driven by her family, not a desire for money or status.
“Knowing her for six years, it’s definitely to help the patient care, and help the lives of others,” he said.
Standing nearby with a camera was “proxy dad” Frank Andersen, director of clinical education at the school. Huynh’s parents couldn’t attend because of the virus and Andersen was capturing the moment not just for Huynh, but all the students.
“They’re pioneers in more ways than one,” he said. “And they’ve really done the school proud.”