Graduate School Commencement Brunch Celebration Focuses on the Road Ahead

By Nathan Tidwell

Faculty, family, staff and students gathered at the Four Points by Sheraton in Little Rock to recognize the Class of 2024 prior to UAMS’ commencement later in the day.

Stephanie Gardner

Stephanie Gardner, Pharm.D., Ed.D., UAMS provost, chief academic officer and chief strategy officer, addresses the gathering.Image by Nathan Tidwell

Sean Taverna, Ph.D., hosting his first brunch since taking over as dean Nov. 1, welcomed the attendees.

“Today we celebrate the 78 students who will receive degrees and certificates from the Graduate School,” said Taverna. “I’m proud of all of you. All those long hours of doing cutting-edge research have paid off. You have made impactful discoveries that will improve lives in Arkansas and worldwide.”

The 2024 graduates include students who received Doctor of Philosophy degrees, Master of Science degrees and graduate certificates.

Stephanie Gardner, Pharm.D., Ed.D., UAMS provost, chief academic officer and chief strategy officer, also had inspiring words for the graduates.

“This is an exciting time. It’s fun when school starts, but it’s really wonderful when the families are all here and celebrating what has been a long journey for each of you,” Gardner said. “This event is a wonderful tradition — a time for celebrating your accomplishments with classmates and faculty members who have been with you along the way.”

Sean Taverna

Graduate School dean Sean Taverna, Ph.D., welcomes the attendees.Image by Nathan Tidwell

“You represent a diverse array of fields — from biomedical informatics to clinical nutrition, from audiology to public health,” she added. “What you have in common is that you have gained advanced knowledge and skills in your field or profession needed to drive transformative change in health care and enhance scientific understanding.”

Alisha Crump, a native of District Heights, Maryland, who graduated with a Ph.D. in Epidemiology, was the student speaker.

“I saw Alisha being interviewed on the news not long ago and thought ‘she has to speak at our brunch,’” said Taverna.

Crump compared the process of waiting for packages to arrive to the path towards completing graduate school.

“The processing step of placing any order involves verification, making sure it is accurate and that all items are in stock. For us, this is where our graduate school journey began,” Crump said. “We meticulously calculated our personal inventory, making sure we had things like integrity, purpose and resilience for the journey ahead. We dreamt of the day we would be accepted to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

“Then came the hard part — the packaging stage. This represented the daily grind and monumental challenges of graduate-level work,” continued Crump. “We packed and unpacked personal characteristics that contributed to the person we had become, shedding old habits while assembling new ones that better aligned with our goals.”

Commencement Brunch

Family and friends enjoy a nice brunch at the Four Points by Sheraton.Image by Nathan Tidwell

Crump, whose mentor is Benjamin Amick, Ph.D., associate dean for research and a professor in the Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health Department of Epidemiology, connected graduation to the delivery stage.

“We will arrive at a new doorstep. May we never forget the process we endured. We were created for this moment,” said Crump. “We’re prepared to transcend boundaries and elevate the world, but not forgetting to reach back and inspire those behind us.”

Steven Chasteen earned a Ph.D. in Nursing Science, completing a process that also saw him earn his undergraduate and master’s degrees in nursing from UAMS.

“It’s overwhelming,” Chasteen said. “I love the nursing profession. I’m excited to be able to take this degree and see what I can do going forward.”

Chasteen’s mentor is Martha Rojo, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the College of Nursing.

Graduate Alexa Escapita had a jumble of emotions about her Ph.D. in neuroscience as well as kind words for her mentor Tara Johnson, M.D., an assistant professor in the College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics.

Robert McGehee, Alexa Escapita

Graduate School dean emeritus Robert E.  McGehee, Jr., Ph.D., chats with graduate Alexa Escapita and her mother.Image by Nathan Tidwell

“I feel good, I feel nervous — all of the above,” said Escapita. “Dr. Johnson has guided me and given me opportunities many students don’t have. I got to see patients with her and talk with families, which is very unique for a Ph.D.”

“Fun fact — Alexa actually interviewed me on one my visits,” added Taverna. “In addition to her research, she’s also been a huge force in keeping all of the graduate students connected through her involvement in the Graduate Student Association.”

Commencement Day is a proud one for faculty such as Wendy Nembhard, Ph.D., MPH, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology.

“This our crowning day. We’ve been working hard with the students during their programs, and this is when we launch them into the world,” Nembhard said.

Gardner and Taverna warmly acknowledged Robert E. McGehee, Jr., Ph.D., dean emeritus of the Graduate School, a distinguished professor the College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics/Neonatology and executive director of the Arkansas Biosciences Institute.

“I want to thank Dr. McGehee for the work he’s done over the years,” Gardner said.

“His dedication to the students and the development of the graduate program is why many of us are here. My goal is to carry on and build upon that foundation,” said Taverna.

Commencement Brunch

The Graduate School Commencement Brunch celebrates recipients of degrees and certificates.Image by Nathan Tidwell