They started medical school during a worldwide pandemic, when ICUs were full and a vaccine undiscovered. They met during Zoom classes from their off-campus homes. Despite the risks, they chose not to cancel in-person anatomy labs and did dissections in protective gowns, face shields and masks. And on Friday, the UCF College of Medicine class of 2024, known as 鈥淭he COVID Class,鈥 became doctors.

鈥淒espite the challenges you thrived, you learned, you grew,鈥 Deborah German, vice president for medical affairs and dean told students at their commencement. 鈥淎nd you cared for your patients with courage, determination and grace.鈥

The 117 new physician Knights now enter residency programs across the community, state and nation in specialties that include primary care, surgery and pediatrics. This year鈥檚 class includes the medical school鈥檚 first two M.D./Ph.D. graduates and the first to enter medical genetics as a specialty. It also includes a record 16 who will go into the field of psychiatry after witnessing the mental health impacts of COVID isolation.

Kailee Simpson is one of those psychiatrists. Someone advised her not to put life on hold during medical school and she jokes about how closely she followed that advice. Simpson and her husband, Jeffrey, another Class of 2024 graduate, met during their first year of medical school. They married in their third year and had their son, Rafael, during fourth year rotations in Pittsburgh. That鈥檚 where she will do her residency in child psychiatry and he will train in orthopedic surgery. Rafael, now 8 months old, attended Friday鈥檚 commencement ceremonies.

鈥淚鈥檓 excited to be able to help kids and work with other physicians to protect mental health,鈥 Kailee says of her career path. 鈥淭here is such a need for child psychiatrists. I have worked with patients who said there was a year-long wait for an appointment for their child.鈥

Francesco Sautto will do his medical genetics residency at the University of Michigan, where he will be trained to care for children and adults with rare genetic diseases like Down syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome. He says he is excited to be an advocate for patients who often struggle to get a diagnosis because their condition is so uncommon and need a physician who can address additional complications that come with genetic disease.

鈥淭hese conditions are so rare and barely known,鈥 he says. 鈥淏ut these are real people with these diseases and I want to be their advocate.鈥

Three people wearing military uniforms standing on a commencement stage
From left, military officers Leeann Hu, Tovah Williamson and Asanka Ekanayake take their oath.

Commencement included the promotion of three student military officers who will do their residency training at VA hospitals caring for the nation鈥檚 heroes.

Tovah Williamson is a Navy officer who will train in general surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She says she chose the Navy to honor her father, a Navy veteran, and came to UCF because the medical school was committed to helping each student reach their individual goals.

鈥淥ther medical schools push you into a particular field or specialty,鈥 she says. 鈥淯CF was different. They said they would help me fulfill my dreams and all I have ever wanted to be was a surgeon.鈥

Many of the graduates said they came to UCF鈥檚 young medical school because of the opportunity to help build a Medical City at Lake Nona that will soon include UCF鈥檚 College of Nursing facility. UCF Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Johnson talked about the medical school鈥檚 accomplishments in his commencement address.

鈥淭oday you become alumni of an innovative medical school committed to improving health for all,鈥 he said. 鈥淵our young medical school exhibits a pioneering spirit and anchors a thriving Medical City at Lake Nona with a new UCF partnership teaching hospital and cancer center.鈥

As the graduates leave medical school and go on to serving patients, speakers urged them to care for others with kindness, humility and advocacy. Monika Farhangi ’19MD now cares for patients as an ophthalmologist at UCF Health, the medical school鈥檚 faculty practice.

She says every day she carries with her 鈥渢he invaluable lessons I learned at this medical school 鈥 approaching every patient with an open heart and mind, recognizing that every interaction marks a chance to make a meaningful difference.鈥

A room full of graduates wearing regalia