Graduation 2021: Public health is ‘more relevant than ever’

Most people don’t think about public health unless there’s a crisis, Dean Michelle Williams noted during Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s 2021 virtual graduation ceremony, held May 27. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, the field has become more visible and relevant than ever.

“The world is realizing that public health is just that—public. That it’s everyone’s business. And that we simply haven’t invested in public health like we should,” Williams said.

Crises create the opportunity to look at old problems in new ways and to imagine something better, she said. Noting that applications for next year’s class have gone up by 40 percent, she told graduates, “People want to be like you. They want to be part of the solution.”

Other speakers at the ceremony included student speaker Russell Simons, MPH ’21; graduation speaker Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization; and Carmon Davis, MPH ’94, president of the Harvard Chan School Alumni Association. Tedros was awarded the 2021 Julius B. Richmond Award, the highest honor given by the Harvard Chan School, in conjunction with the ceremony. Robin Glover, associate dean for student services, read graduates’ names while slides showed their name, degree and major, and photo.

Congratulatory messages from Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and other prominent figures, played throughout the event. The graduation page featured video messages from faculty and administrators, and a social stream page shared real-time well wishes.

“The world is realizing that public health is just that—public. That it’s everyone’s business.” —Dean Michelle Williams

Simons, a medical student at the University of Chicago, spoke about his frustration with the limits of medicine in meeting the needs of his socioeconomically disadvantaged patients. “There is no pill for injustice,” he said. While studying at the Harvard Chan School this past year, Simons said, he has come to see that caring about health is a political act, and that social change can be medicine.

Tedros noted that while the 1918 flu pandemic killed more people than World War I, it has been overshadowed in history by the war and its lessons forgotten. When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, he said, the world was not ready.

While acknowledging the difficulties students have faced during the pandemic, he said it has given them an incredible education. “You are living history,” he said. “The lessons of this pandemic will stay with you.”

Davis welcomed graduates to the Harvard Chan Alumni Association. “Today, we honor you,” she said. “You have shown the world that you can overcome extraordinary challenges. You will be the heroes in many lives.”

Class of 2021 Statistics

617 total graduates

across six degree programs

Degrees granted

  • 66 Doctor of Philosophy
  • 17 Doctor of Public Health
  • 6 Doctor of Science
  • 30 Master in Health Care Management
  • 366 Master of Public Health
  • 132 Master of Science

Graduation Snapshots

Prior to graduation, students were allowed to wear their regalia on campus and celebrate their achievements (top three photos). Student speaker Russell Simons, MPH ’21 (fourth photo ) and Dean Michelle Williams and graduation speaker and 2021 Julius B. Richmond Award winner Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (bottom photo) were part of the graduation ceremony streamed online.

Female student poses outside the Conway Library in Crimson regalia. Harvard T.H. Chan School Banner is in background. Two female students dressed in graduation robes and hats high five in front of Kresge building. Male student wearing a suit, crimson tie, and crismon graduation sash poses in front of "Master of Health Care Management" banner  tudent speaker Russell Simons, MPH ’21Screen capture of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Dean Michelle Williams in regalia during the 2021 Harvard TH Chan Graduation ceremony.

Photos: Harvard Chan School