They have been called pioneers, trailblazers and risk-takers.
And now they can be called doctors.
The first graduating class of medical students received their degrees Monday from the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine in an emotionally charged ceremony that celebrated their collective achievement and reinforced the responsibility of being a physician.
"You believed in this school. And you believed this medical school would prepare you for a lifetime of healing," Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz told a packed audience of graduates and their families inside the Adams Playhouse on the Hempstead campus. "From this day forward, your accomplishments will be the greatest driver of the school's reputation."
The school, a joint venture between Hofstra University, the largest private university on Long Island, and North Shore-LIJ, the Island's largest health system, is the first new doctor of medicine program in the state in more than 40 years.
Michael Dowling, chief executive of the North Shore-LIJ Health System, told the graduates to be the doctors the community deserves. He urged them to elevate the profession and change public policy. "You are more than a doctor. You are a person that people will look up to," Dowling said.
In his commencement speech, Dr. Lawrence Smith, dean of the medical school and an internist, explained to students the importance of humanism and integrity as they deal with the long hours, exhaustion and stress of practicing medicine.
"When you most feel like running from patients because you don't think you can take it anymore, run to them," he said.
The inaugural class of 40 students, selected from an applicant pool of 4,000, started in the summer of 2011. In keeping with the hands-on approach to medical education, each became an emergency medical technician within the first few months of classes. For the next class that will enter this summer, there were more than 6,000 applicants for 100 spots.
Many students conducted research projects and performed community service work, and all saw patients in the hospitals and clinics within the North Shore system. They founded a student council, various clubs, a literary magazine, and organized events, all while keeping up with the rigors of challenging medical course work.
Among their most memorable accomplishments, several students said, was to help mold the school's new and evolving curriculum, in which teamwork and problem-solving are valued over memorization and testing.
"We were the boots on the ground," said Dr. Alexander "AJ" Blood. "We told them what was working, what wasn't working. We told them in what ways they could tweak the schedule, the learning modules. They put all their resources at our disposal." Blood, 27, of McLean, Virginia, will go on to an internal medicine residency at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Dr. Niki Sheth, 26, of Williston Park, said she felt like a partner in shaping the new medical school.
"I loved the amount of influence we had as the first class," she said. "These four years changed me too. I went in questioning myself a little bit, and now I've become so much more confident."
Thirty of the 40 students graduated Monday. As is typical with medical education, some students take time off to conduct research or get additional degrees before they receive their M.D. All of the graduating students matched with residencies, about one-third in hospitals within the North Shore system, and the rest in the state and across the nation.
One student, Branson Sparks, died after completing his first year at the medical school. Sparks, of Alexandria, Louisiana, a popular and gregarious member of the first class, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. The tragedy brought the already intimate medical class even closer as they supported one of their own. Sparks was honored at the commencement ceremony with a certificate, and a university trustee has endowed an award for humanism in his name.
Student speaker Dr. Matthew Katz of Port Washington told his classmates to embody what it means to have been trained at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ. "Long after we are gone, our picture will be on the wall of this medical school as the pioneering class," Katz said. "We must pave the way for our peers to come."