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Medicine, the Healing Power of the Humanities -- and Four Years at Duke

For the student commencement speaker, the humanities have profoundly shaped her preparation for a future in medicine.

Part of the Class of 2019: Graduating Stories Series
Leah Rosen has been selected the student commencement speaker. Photo by Kristen Brown
In her time at Duke, senior Leah Rosen matched the humanities with her interest in studying medicine. Photo by Kristen Brown.

When Duke senior Leah Rosen was growing up in Aurora, Colorado, her parents -- a gastroenterologist and a cardiac nurse -- shared some career advice: Whatever you do, don’t go into the health care field, they said, citing the heavy cost of a medical school education.

She didn’t listen.

“I couldn’t fight the fact that I felt drawn to health and medicine,” said Rosen, 21, who will deliver the student address at the university’s commencement ceremonies on May 12.

While at Duke, Rosen decided she wanted to become a doctor, volunteering at the Duke Cancer Center and serving as president of Duke HAND (Helping Those with Alzheimers and Other Neurological Diseases) and as president of Duke Global Medical Brigades, which sends groups of students to Central America to volunteer on health care projects.

The pre-med student took an untraditional path in preparing for the “family business,” though. She designed her own major in illness and identity through Duke’s “Program 2” option, which allows students to craft their own courses of study. Rosen, who loves reading and writing as well as science, also took part in the inaugural session of Reimagining Medicine, an intensive summer program for Duke pre-meds that draws heavily upon the humanities.

“The humanities are crucial to the practice of medicine,” Rosen said.

“‘How does the experience of illness affect who a person is?’” That’s a question at the center of medicine. And you can’t begin to answer it without borrowing from the humanities.”

Rosen views empathy and imagination as vital to the practice of medicine. Those qualities have also aided her in her personal journey. The daughter of an Italian-American Catholic and a Cuban-American Jew, she has experience in moving between cultures. 

Her commencement speech is something of a love letter to her time at Duke. It also touches on a theme she pursued in humanities classes -- the difference between “being” and “doing.”

“In premed culture you’re taught to ‘do, do, do,’” Rosen said. “Yet in order to really be present with a patient, we also need to learn to ‘be.’”

Sterly Wilder, associate vice president for alumni affairs, said Rosen’s speech was among many strong submissions this year.

 “Leah’s speech stood out as one that was incredibly creative and had broad appeal – to all degree candidates -- undergraduate, graduate and professional -- as well as many of those attending the ceremony,” said Wilder, who served on the committee that chose the student speaker.

After graduation, Rosen will pursue a master’s degree in narrative medicine before applying to medical school.

Rosen’s parents and her sister will be on hand to hear her graduation speech. So will her twin brother, Nick. He graduates the day before from the University of Southern California, and will grab a red-eye flight in order to catch his sister’s speech.

Parental warnings notwithstanding, he, too, plans to become a doctor.

Duke commencement exercises take place at 9 a.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium and are open to the public free of charge.