“Today, public health is everywhere.”
In her Commencement remarks to the 2020 graduates of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Dean Michelle A. Williams noted that public health is often invisible. But with the world engulfed in a pandemic, the situation has changed. “Today, public health is everywhere,” Williams said. “It’s on the top of mind for nearly every person in nearly every country around the globe.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commencement ceremony on May 28 was virtual—which Williams acknowledged was probably not how students would have envisioned their graduation day. But as she told the Class of 2020, clad in her academic regalia and speaking from her home via video, “You have risen to this unprecedented occasion in ways that have humbled us.” Students had done more than adapt to online classes after the pandemic forced closure of the campus, Williams added. “You’ve gone from pupils to practitioners literally overnight.”
During the ceremony, Dean for Academic Affairs Jane Kim announced student, faculty, and staff awards, and Associate Dean for Student Services Robin Glover read graduates’ names as slides displayed their names, degrees and majors, and photos.
The graduation webpage featured congratulatory video messages from department chairs, program directors, and Dean for Education Erin Driver-Linn. A live social stream page allowed students, faculty, staff, and alumni to share real-time posts with reflections, well wishes, and memories about their experiences at the School.
Student speaker Nadhira Nuraini Afifa, MPH ’20, originally from a small town in Indonesia, told her fellow graduates that when she first arrived at the School, she was afraid of being seen as different. But by her second week, buoyed by unexpected expressions of kindness and inclusion, her perception started to change. “Equality, inclusivity, unity—I cannot think of any better place I can learn it all but here,” she said.
Graduation speaker Muhammad Ali Pate, global director of the Health, Nutrition, and Population Global Practice at the World Bank; director of the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children, and Adolescents; and Julio Frenk Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership in the School’s Department of Global Health and Population, recounted growing up in Nigeria in a family of herdsmen and likened the responsibilities of tending livestock to the fundamentals of public health leadership.
“The magnitude of this pandemic speaks to something that herdsmen have understood for millennia: that simple but powerful notion that we are all interconnected—humans, animals, pathogens, and our global environment,” he said.
Carmon Davis, MPH ’94, president of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Alumni Association, welcomed the graduates as new members of the association. “The world is looking to you for the solutions,” she said, “as we all face ‘the new normal’ together.”