MUSC graduates 800; Charleston's Darius Rucker speaks

Darius Rucker was the commencement speaker at the Medical University of South Carolina on Friday, and was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Now-Dr. Justin Ellett walked across the stage on the Horseshoe after finishing eight years at the Medical University of South Carolina and earning a Ph.D. in medicine and philosophy.

As part of his urology residency to become a surgeon-researcher, he only has five years left at MUSC. But Ellett said he doesn't mind sticking around for a total of 13 years.

"I think Charleston is one of those places that just gets in your blood and sticks with you," Ellett, 30, said. "It's a tough place to leave."

The native of Richmond, Va., was one of 800 graduates honored at MUSC's 182nd commencement ceremony this morning. But in recognition of the many years Ellett and his seven fellow double-doctoral candidates have invested in the university, the small group was allowed to uncork a bottle of champagne onstage and share a toast with the commencement speaker, Darius Rucker.

"I want to say what an honor this is to be here with you," said Rucker, a Grammy-winning country singer and front man of Hootie & the Blowfish. "I got to go to one graduation in my life and that was Middleton High School right down the road."

Rucker attended the University of South Carolina but dropped out to pursue his music career, or, as he put it: "I took a year off 20 years ago." Not only did Rucker get to speak at the graduation, he was awarded an honorary doctorate for his work on the MUSC Children's Hospital's Board of Directors, his large donations to the university and the aid of his Hootie & the Blowfish Foundation, which helps needy children get a education.

"Usually, I put most stuff in my room upstairs, but I think my degree is going somewhere very close to the front door so when people walk in they know they have to call me Dr. Rucker," he said. "My wife told my 9-year-old daughter about it, and she said 'What, he didn't have to go to school?' "

William Carter Jenkins, the doctor who first publicized the existence of the infamous and unethical Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and Robert J. Sywolski, the former president and CEO of Blackbaud who has donated more than $2.5 million to MUSC, also were awarded honorary doctorates.

But onstage wasn't the only place graduates were popping bottles. The physical therapy doctoral candidates waited to get back to their seats before uncorking their own toast. Among them was Hannah Foster, 25, a native of St. Louis who has been accepted to a neurological physical therapy residency at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla.

"I decided to choose one school far away," Foster said. "I had never even been to South Carolina and I came down and looked and, it feels cheesy to say, but it's kind of one of those 'when you know, you know' things. I instantly loved it."

Foster has volunteered with many organizations during her time at MUSC, including the Down Syndrome Association of the Lowcountry, the American Heart Association and Family Connection of South Carolina. While working with a multiple sclerosis patient who was experiencing her first bout of severe symptoms and seeking answers, Foster realized the hospital had a lack of convenient information to give out. So, between working on her degree, she compiled an 88-page "booklet" of information on the disease.

"When I showed it to my neuro-teacher, Dr. Sara Kraft, she said, 'You have to send this to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and at least show them what you've done,' " Foster said.

The society is now looking at publishing her work.

Dr. Debra J. Hazen-Martin, president of MUSC's Joint Alumni Board, closed the ceremony with a wish of good luck to Ellett, Foster and the rest of the graduates.

"We will follow your careers with great pride," she said.