When Ashley Senss, MMS ‘20 was asked to give the commencement address, she would have been just fine getting up in front of a big crowd at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and delivering her remarks.

Ashley SenssShe used to be a lector at her church and was used to giving prepared speeches from the podium in front of large gatherings. So the commencement gig would have felt natural for her. 

But because of the pandemic, a lot of things haven’t been natural for a while now, including Salus University’s commencement ceremonies. So when Senss had to film her speech in advance in front of a few individuals from the University’s Communications Department in one half of the Lombardi Classroom on the Elkins Park campus, it was a little more nerve-wracking for Senss than what a Kimmel auditorium full of people would have been. 

“Being up on the stage speaking and having the speech in front of me like I did in church would have been more natural for me,” said Senss, who was also involved in theater prior to attending Salus. “The stage is like a second home for me. To be up there on a stage giving this speech would have been a real honor and a pleasure to do. It’s unfortunate that we had to do it this way, but I’m glad I was at least able to deliver it on camera on the Salus campus. Once I found that theme of home and family, the rest of the speech just flowed from there. Especially now, when the mental health of healthcare providers is more at the forefront of people's minds.”

The University’s 121st Commencement ceremony, which premiered Oct. 13 at 2 p.m. online, was filmed in advance with all of the speakers in September. It was the second commencement — the first was the spring 2020 ceremony — offered virtually because of social distancing protocols forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Art HaywoodPennsylvania State Sen. Arthur L. Haywood, III — who represents the Fourth District, which includes parts of Montgomery and Philadelphia counties — delivered the keynote address. He encouraged the graduates to be trusted advisors and to utilize the power that comes with a degree.

“Anyone can become a trusted advisor just as a result of caring and being present. You too can be a trusted advisor no matter your background. We are all humans - all with the capacity for empathy, all with the capacity for love,” said Sen. Haywood, who also received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Salus president Michael H. Mittelman, OD ‘80, MPH, MBA, FAAO, FACHE. 

“Your degree brings power and with your power I encourage you when it comes time to distribute resources, whether it's personal protective equipment or some other resource, to start at the bottom,” said Sen. Haywood. “Please don't stop at the top because that will leave the bottom out, which is exactly and unfortunately what happened with the personal protective equipment distribution. When you look at our national healthcare system and changes that need to be made, first please look at the bottom.”

Sen. Haywood urged the graduates to be part of the solution as they move forward in their careers. He echoed it’s a challenging time for everyone now, both socially and economically.  

“We are in the midst of some of the greatest wealth and income inequality our nation has ever seen, and it is generating hopelessness and despair,” he said. “So to deal with this emerging change in our demographics, as well as a severe economic inequality, we must address systemic racism as part of the core challenge. Not just for systemic racism, but for all issues in your neighborhood. Whether as a block captain, or school board leader, a volunteer on a soccer team, all of those are important leadership positions that hold a community together. The universe is big enough for you. The universe is big enough for us. Who you are, there's room for that.”

Ashlen LawrenceDr. Mittelman acknowledged during his remarks that everyone at the University hoped that the fall ceremony could return to the Kimmel Center. “While we all realize this isn’t what anyone ever expected, we’re going to do our best to celebrate your successes and accomplishments in the best way possible,” he said. 

During her address, Senss shared with her fellow graduates that their time at Salus and the Physician Assistant (PA) Studies program in particular, has taught them many things, not the least of which is that they are all capable of accomplishing more than they think they can.

“Learning through COVID, especially, has taught us how to be resilient and how to find creative solutions to new problems. But we have also learned that no one person can do it all on his or her own. This is the foundation of the PA practice but also a core teaching at Salus. Healthcare takes a team approach,” she said. “COVID has made our scope of practice more complex. But Salus has given us a good foundation. It is now our job to get out there and build on it — to continue to question and learn for the welfare of our patients and clients.”

As James M. Caldwell, OD ‘89, Resident ‘91, EdD, dean of Student Affairs, read off the names, the name and photo of each graduates submitted appeared on screen. Alumni Association president Amanda Marchegiani, AuD ‘10, then offered her congratulations to the Class of 2020 on behalf of the association. 

Like all of the graduates who had to adjust to the pandemic, Ashlen Lawrence, MMS ‘20, found a way to pivot to a virtual ceremony that captured some of the excitement of a live event. 

Nicholas LordShe and three of her PA classmates who were also graduating gathered at Lawrence’s place, where they transferred the livestream YouTube video to her television. When each of their names were announced and their photos appeared on the screen, they “walked” across in front of the TV after having their photos taken by Lawrence’s boyfriend.

“I think Salus did a pretty good job with the virtual ceremony,” she said. “I really liked that they were able to add a personalized touch by allowing students to include a photo. I thought that was so fun. It’s obviously unfortunate that we couldn’t be together and celebrate as a cohort, but I’m still so proud of everything that we’ve accomplished while we’ve been at Salus.”

Nicholas Lord, MMS ‘20, wasn’t sure what to expect from a virtual ceremony, but thought the end result was positive.

“It was pretty much like being at a live ceremony, just sitting in my living room instead,” he said. “One of the things I liked was that I was able to sit with my parents and family and be with them throughout the whole ceremony. The downside was I would have liked to have seen some of my classmates before we all started leaving and moving on.” 

For Senss, watching herself on screen giving a commencement address more than a month after it was filmed proved to be more emotional than she expected when she watched it.

“I sat there and was texting my friends, ‘Why am I crying while I’m watching myself?’” she said. “But I really liked how it was put together and it was nice having our pictures and names up on screen when our names were announced.”