Jessica LesnoyNot only did Jessica Lesnoy, MSOT ‘20, never imagine she would be selected to give her class commencement address, but she also never expected she’d deliver that speech from her small apartment in Philadelphia rather than in front of a big crowd at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

But that’s what happened at Salus University’s 120th commencement Friday, May 22, the University’s first-ever virtual ceremony, an event forced online because of the COVID-19 pandemic that has closed the campus and all big events throughout the state since mid-March.

Graduate“Filming the speech from my living room was definitely less of an exhilarating experience as compared to giving the speech at a traditional commencement ceremony,” said Lesnoy. “I might have had more excitement and energy if I were able to look out into a huge crowd and see my family, friends, and faculty mentors listening to me and cheering me on.”

The virtual ceremony also provided a different experience for James Caldwell, OD ‘89, Resident ‘90, EdD, FAAO, dean of Student Affairs. Dr. Caldwell coordinates the traditional ceremony at the Kimmel Center and also announces each graduate’s name.  He filmed his part in late April on a mostly empty Elkins Park, Pa. campus, just before noon with a bright sunlight directly overhead.

Graduate“For me the differences were the notable absence of the spontaneous cheers and shouts of joy from the attendees as their graduate's name is being read,” said Dr. Caldwell. “Also the thunderous applause after reading the final name was missing this year. It is customary for the entire audience, along with those on the stage, to rise and applaud the graduates for several moments. It's an amazing experience, every time it happens. Of course, none of that happened while filming on campus.”

All aspects of the ceremony were filmed in advance, either on campus or from the speakers’ homes. One exception was that University president Michael H. Mittelman, OD ‘80, MPH, MBA, FAAO, FACHE, has in past years had a tradition of talking informally to the graduating class during rehearsal on the morning of the ceremony. Since that wasn’t possible this year, the communications staff arranged for him to speak to the students via Instagram Live on the morning of commencement. 

Graduate“I’ve got to hand it to your class — you’ve handled things unbelievably professionally and with a great deal of class,” said Dr. Mittelman in his morning message. “I know it hasn’t been easy for you. But as we always do at Salus, we have persevered and I think we have really overcome.”

But when the prerecorded and edited virtual commencement premiered on the University’s website,  graduates were presented with a memorable ceremony. Well-wishers could even use the YouTube live chat feature to offer comments and congratulations in real time during the ceremony.

“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,” said Dr. Mittelman in his pre-filmed remarks. 

He noted that the last devastating pandemic to hit the United States — the Spanish Flu — occurred in 1918. The University’s founding institution, the Pennsylvania State College of Optometry (PSCO), was established  in 1919, while Philadelphia was still struggling to contain that pandemic.

Graduate"Despite that public health disaster, our founders forged ahead, pulled their resources together, developing innovative and cutting-edge curriculum for that time,” said Dr. Mittelman. “Now, 101 years later, our institution finds itself again in the middle of a historical pandemic. But just like 1919, we continue to innovate, we continue to evolve, we continue to be responsive.” 

Anthony Di Stefano, OD ‘73, MEd, MPH, FAAO, who has been associated with the University in some capacity for more than 50 years, received a Doctor of Science Honorary Degree and delivered the keynote address.

GraduateIn accepting the honor, Dr. Di Stefano designed his remarks to graduates to include three themes: legacy, public health and political action.

“Legacy is our institutional foundation; public health is our personal and professional responsibility as our University name ‘Salus’ envisions; and political action is the critical dimension to transforming the healthcare system to one in which you will prosper,” said Dr. Di Stefano.

Delivering the oration for Dr. Di Stefano’s honorary degree was president emeritus, Thomas Lewis, OD ‚70, PhD, FAAO, president of the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) from 1989 to 2008 and then Salus University, which PCO established, from 2008 to 2013.

Graduate“When I became president of PCO in 1989, my first, and easiest decision, was to offer Dr. DiStefano the position of vice president and dean,” said Dr. Lewis. “If asked to name the five people throughout the history of this institution who have contributed most to its growth, development and mission, I can assure you Dr. Di Stefano would be included.”

After the presentation of candidates and conferring of degrees, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, Barry Eckert, PhD, recited the Oath of Professionalism — which all health professionals recite at graduation — after which Alumni Association president David W. Friess, OD ‘02, FAAO, offered congratulations from the University. 

Graduate“Only you and your family realize the sacrifices that you made to reach this moment. Not only financial sacrifices, but great sacrifices of time, tremendous effort, and anxiety-evoking stress that you, and only you, had to endure to reach this moment. But you made it,” said Dr. Friess. “And always remember, each day you walk into your place of employment, that you are representing Salus and the very best of your profession.”

Graduates, families and friends watched the ceremony from a variety of locations and were complimentary to the University on its efforts to make the day special.

“Looking at it as a whole, it was very untraditional, but it was very well done and it felt like a nice ending to my time at Salus,” said Anthony Oliveti, AuD ‘20, who watched from an apartment in Washington, D.C., with some college friends from undergraduate school as well as on Zoom with colleagues from his cohort and various family members.

GraduateDr. Oliveti said the uniqueness of the ceremony blended well with what he learned during his time at the University’s Osborne College of Audiology (OCA).

“One thing they talk about at OCA is that it’s a non-traditional audiology program. We’re much more biomedical-based, we don’t have a capstone traditionally like other programs,” he said. “So it was kind of full circle for me. It was a non-traditional ending for a non-traditional program.”

Lesnoy, who gave the class commencement address, said it was a little weird watching herself on YouTube while the ceremony played out. The unofficial YouTube count logged 1,315 views of the ceremony within an hour after its conclusion. 

“I went on Zoom with a couple of my best friends from the OT program and we were all watching it together,” said Lesnoy, who viewed the ceremony while sitting on the couch with her boyfriend Patrick Murphy in their Philadelphia apartment. “I was nervous watching myself, but it was funny watching them watch me.”

GraduateShe added that she loved the finished video of the online ceremony. 

“They did a really good job of making it special, even though it wasn't in person,” said Lesnoy. “I liked seeing the people actually at Salus making it seem more real for us. The speeches were great, although I wasn’t sure that they were going to say everyone’s name. But I was really happy that everyone got the mention that they deserved.”

Virtual Commencement