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J. Ashli Neal, MS-CEM ’24 Hooding Ceremony Speech

Last updated May 20, 2024

By Sarabeth Trimble

On May 3, 2024, the Office of Graduate Studies held a Hooding Ceremony to honor our 2024 graduates and their amazing accomplishments. Students in the Master of Science in Community Engaged Medicine chose J. Ashli Neal to speak on their behalf. To follow is her speech.


J. Ashli Neal with vice president for Academic Affairs and provost, Beth Pontari, and dean of faculty, Jeremy Cass

Before I begin, I would like to thank my cohort and the CEM faculty and staff for selecting me to speak on behalf of the cohort this evening. If you knew how emotional I could get, I’m not sure I would be up here. But to keep from getting emotional, I’ll refrain from looking at my mom, who’s been crying since my parents dropped me off last June. That being said, though we are inside if my voice starts to break or my eyes water, we’re just going to collectively blame it on the pollen.  

As I reflect back to our first day in orientation, I almost feel that I have been misled. I thought I knew what was in store. I was set to learn about anatomy & physiology, genetics, epidemiology, biochemistry, and policy. I was ready to unfold the complexities of the social determinants of health and recognize my biases. By the second semester, I was even ready for each of our professors to say, “If I don’t remember someone’s name, I will just say Ashli.” For those who don’t know, there were four Ashli’s out of 15 people in the program, so they had a good chance of guessing correctly. I was prepared for the tears that would come when I used the word “impact” for the 100th time in my thesis since I could not think of another synonym. But what I did not know was that I would become so close with 14 other men and women. The impact that each of my classmates, the CEM staff and faculty, and the Greenville community would have, was unbeknownst to me.  

To fully take advantage of this program, you must be open-minded, willing to hear the sometimes-ugly truth and be prepared to change your perspective. You must be comfortable being uncomfortable and be tired of being complacent. Yet, this does not solely apply to this program, but life in general. From the beginning of the program, Dr. Rachael Bowers articulated that this program was not a gap year. Initially, I believe some of us still labeled it as such, but quickly learned that she was right, and it was so much more than that. Looking at my peers and comparing them to who I thought they were at the beginning and who I know they are now, I have seen and witnessed growth in all of us in various ways; through our connections with others, through our determination, and through our newfound purposes and passions. Most notably for me, through our adapted perspectives. 

A major shift in perspective for me came from my fieldwork placement. At the beginning of the program, Ms. Loretta Crowley gave a synopsis on each placement before disclosing who was assigned to that placement. As she described them, naturally, there were ones I wanted more than others. When I learned of my placement at Gateway, a community that aids in the rehabilitation for adults living with serious mental illnesses, I knew I would come out with stories, but I had no clue that they would be stories of determination, astonishment, perseverance, admiration, and inspiration. The stigma around mental illness is debilitating to the world, a stigma that affected how I viewed individuals suffering from a mental illness that often led me to sticking them into a box prior to being at Gateway. The work that Gateway does, not only heals and benefits their members dealing with a serious mental illness, but also benefits those working alongside the members like it did for me. As we attempted to alleviate the members from as much pain as possible, we subconsciously alleviated ourselves from our one note way of thinking. This created a broader perspective that allowed us to see things in a light that beforehand seemed unimaginable. Gateway’s members and staff have had a profound impact on my perspective on life and will forever be a part of me. 

It became tradition for our cohort to spend two hours in a classroom discussing heavy topics and spend an additional hour in the parking lot either recapping what was discussed in class or confiding in each other that none of us had started our next thesis assignment due at 11:59 pm. This tradition began during our second semester and continued for the remainder of the program. After our last class just 2 weeks ago, a few of us gathered in the parking lot for what we thought would be our last routine debrief. Kara asked us what our favorite part of the program was. Trying to comb through each portion of the program, I landed on a conversation that took place in healthcare seminar. One of our classmates acknowledged another classmate for giving them the courage to be vulnerable and voice their thoughts. This was my favorite part of the program because it embodied the growth that takes place within this program and that is needed in life.  

Before I conclude, I must go back to our implicit bias class when our professor, Jayla Moody, guided us to discuss privilege. Not only discuss privilege, but to recognize our own privileges in different realms; whether that be by our race, gender, ability, skills, etc. I want us to go a step further and recognize our privilege of opportunity. To gain knowledge in every part of this program is a privilege, to obtain a master’s degree is a privilege, to simply have walked through those doors on the first day of orientation is a privilege. So many individuals do not have the opportunities, resources or privilege to be where we are today, but we do. It is up to us to use our privilege not for our own gain but to help and benefit others.  

Throughout this program, we learned about what seem like innumerable gaps and problems within the healthcare system which can be discouraging. But we truly have the tools we need to make a difference within the system, one patient and one interaction at a time. Whether we stay in Greenville or set flight abroad to Colombia, our work is not done, but merely getting started. Getting to know each of my colleagues, it was revealed that we all at some point throughout the program had imposter syndrome. But the CEM faculty and staff knew we belonged; they knew we could be someone. And when we turned in our final assignment and when we walk across the stage tomorrow evening, I believe that serves as a testament to that. As we close this chapter of our lives, and let the stories and wisdom follow us into our future endeavors, I want to thank my cohort for being vulnerable, empathetic, and supportive. Congratulations, we’ve mastered it! 

Spring 2024 MSCEM graduates

Graduate Studies Hooding Ceremony in Younts Conference Center on the evening of Friday, May 3, 2024.