M.D. Is President Hitt’s Last Graduate

Lea Meir crossed the graduation stage in tears as she shook the hand of the leader whose “dream helped all of our dreams come true.” And in doing so, Meir, now a physician, became the last student in UCF history to receive a diploma from UCF President John C. Hitt, who steps down from the university’s top post in June.

Meir had interviewed at 12 medical schools in 2014. UCF was “where I want to go, where I want to grow,” she told her mother after her admissions interview day at the Lake Nona campus. She was drawn by the new school’s innovation, its role in building an emerging Medical City. And she was drawn by Dr. Deborah German, the founding dean President Hitt had selected, whose speech to interviewees always carries this theme: If you’re scared by the thought of being a pioneer who changes the world, please don’t come to UCF.

Meir took that challenge and on May 18 was one of 116 UCF students to graduate with their M.D.s. With the Class of 2018 commencement, UCF’s young medical school has created 492 Physician Knights. This year’s graduates will go on to do their residency training in top hospitals like Mayo Clinic, Georgetown, Orlando Health and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. Their specialties range from pediatrics to vascular surgery.

In his last commencement address, President Hitt broke down as he told students “that with each patient you comfort, with each kindness you show, and with each life you improve of save, you advance the hopes and dreams for all who believe in you at your alma mater and beyond. I can’t wait to see the wonderful things you will do.” A video the medical school produced to introduce President Hitt’s remarks drew a standing ovation for a president who worked with then-Gov. Jeb Bush to get UCF a medical school.

Kyle Cox was a UCF varsity soccer player and biomedical sciences undergraduate before coming to UCF’s College of Medicine. He’s now on his way to becoming an orthopedic surgeon because he says being a student athlete made him passionate about helping others achieve better movement. “It’s hard to express how grateful I am to have Dr. Hitt as our university president,” he said. “He’s been president the whole time I’ve been alive. My life has been so shaped by his leadership.”

In her remarks, Dr. German talked of the Class of 2018’s White Coat Ceremony and the diverse interests and backgrounds that brought each to medical school. “You were artists, soldiers and scientists, community volunteers and athletes,” she said, noting that several students had been inspired to go into medical school because of their own medical challenges.

For several graduates, medicine is a family tradition. Courtney Mascoe is going on to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg for her OB-GYN residency. Her father, Maurice, is an emergency physician at Health Central Hospital. Mascoe said she went into clerkships believing she would never do surgery or OB-GYN. “Then I fell in love with caring for women in all stages of their lives, of being a shoulder to lean on,” she said. She was inspired by UCF faculty physicians Judy Simms-Cendan and Aileen Caceres, both OB-GYNs, “two strong, amazing women we all aspire to be a fraction of.” Her father could not put into words his feelings about “seeing my little girl grow up. Now when someone calls the house and asks for Dr. Mascoe we’ll have to say, ‘Which one?’”

Reem Abdalla is also following in her physician father’s footsteps as she enters an internal medicine residency at Orlando Health. Joining her at commencement was her best friend, Heba Bahnassy, who traveled more than 6,000 miles on three flights from Egypt. “I had to be here because Reem has always been there for me,” said Bahnassy who works in human resources at the United Nations in Egypt. The two met when they were 13 and Abdalla was living in Egypt. “She is like my sister. We’ve been through a lot together, so the ceremony was really emotional for me. I’m so proud of her and I cried so much.”

He talked of failure and adversity – including flying a mission over Iceland where both engines failed — and how they ultimately led to his greatest achievements. He broke down when he talked of his parents who “taught me from an early age that quitting is not an option” and then joked, “fighter pilots don’t cry.”Class speaker Shane Hamacher talked of coming to medical school after serving 20 years in the military. He graduated from the Air Force Academy, flew F-15 fighter jets and served at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He’s 44, a husband, father of three and is now off to become an otolaryngologist at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

“Drive yourself to achieve more every day,” he told his classmates. “Do not accept failure. You owe it to yourselves, to your future patients and to humankind. You have achieved great things. Now go out and achieve even more.”