May 30, 2013
Dean Frenk, Dr. Brilliant, distinguished guests, faculty and alumni, parents and families: Greetings and good afternoon. Class of 2013—Congratulations! We made it! I am honored to stand in front of you today, to describe our achievements, celebrate our diversity, and help prepare us for our journeys ahead.
At last year’s commencement, Dean Frenk, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, challenged us to be “trailblazers.” Dean Frenk knew there is no better way to challenge 500 type A over-achievers than a dare. And it worked. I’ve been pondering his words ever since and have tried to determine: What does it take to be a trailblazer?
Like any good Harvard student, I started with a hypothesis and employed a robust method of evidence-finding and logical elimination. So, within a 95% confidence interval, here is what I found about what we’ve learned on blazing new trails.
We learned to set ambitious goals. If you are unhappy with the status quo, don’t aim for minor tweaks, plan for systemic overhaul. Facing high rates of cancer mortality in the developing world, we signed on to the World Cancer Declaration to lower not just one, but 11 types of cancer burdens. Seeing high rates of complications after surgery, we didn’t just aim to increase the use of checklists, we worked to change the culture of operating rooms. Our school was founded 100 years ago. We come from a long history of ambitious goal setters, and HSPH has made sure that we wouldn’t leave without raising the bar.
We learned to collaborate. Through numerous group projects, we learned that the best public health solutions are products of multidisciplinary collaboration. For example, in our Spring Challenge this year, to reduce bicycle accidents in Boston, we needed knowledge on neighborhood walkability from Social and Behavioral Science students, insight[s] on incentive alignments from Health Policy and Management students, and analytical prowess from biostatistics students. Our school was founded as a joint Harvard-MIT program. Facing the enormous challenges to public health at the turn of the 20th century, physicians and scientists worked together to form the first public health school in the US. Multidisciplinary collaboration is in our DNA.
And we learned about leadership. I learned it not only through cases or class lectures. I learned it through you, my classmates. Through you I learned that leadership requires courage, humility, and dedication.
When my friend Mary Sando decided to attend HSPH, temporarily leaving behind her two young children and her husband in Tanzania: that is what courage looks like.
When experienced physicians work diligently with non-MD students to improve patient safety: that is what humility looks like.
When my friend Elisabeth Malin decided to return to school despite the death of her mother: that is what dedication looks like.
HSPH has equipped us with the skills, the knowledge, and tools to make our own paths—and we owe it to our family and loved ones, our professors and mentors, ourselves, and the people we will serve, to do so.
Two roads diverged in a wood. We didn’t take either: we created our own, and that will make all the difference.
photo: J.D. Levine