May 26, 2016
‘Not a privilege but a responsibility’
Greetings to Acting Dean Hunter, Dean Designate Williams, Dr. Shalala, distinguished members of the faculty, alumni, fellow graduates, and our friends and family who provided each of us with tremendous support. It is my honor to represent the class of 2016.
Today is a milestone in our public health journey—a day each of us has dreamed of, longed for, and earned. Like you, I have been thinking about the next chapter of my career—and I’ve also been thinking about important lessons I have learned outside the classroom.
For the past five years I have been working for a Health Maintenance Organization committed to getting people at risk access to health care. Late one night in the office I heard Susanna, the cleaning lady, crying: she had just learned that her pregnant daughter had lost her job. Susanna is from Ecuador and speaks English hesitantly, but she told me that her biggest concern was her daughter’s need for medical insurance to deliver the baby safely. She had heard of Medicaid and Obamacare, but none of her friends or family understood the new law or where and how to apply. She felt lost and alone.
Over the following weeks, I worked closely with Susanna to get health coverage for her daughter and future grandchild. And one day, she came to my cubicle with a homemade meal, and said in Spanish Eat! Eat! Her thoughtfulness touched me deeply. It’s easy to show generosity when you have a lot to offer; but it’s much more profound when someone in need shows it.
At that moment, I forgot that she is Ecuadorian, and I am Chinese; that she does not speak English well, and I do not understand much Spanish; and that our lives are very different. Susanna made me realize that serving is not giving a handout, but an opportunity to respect everyone’s dignity equally. And I could not help but wonder: We serve the underserved—but are we enriching each other’s lives?
Thinking about this, I remembered Dean [Meredith] Rosenthal telling us during orientation that we might learn more in the School’s cafeteria, our Kresge Café, than in the classroom. She was right. We have a class of 539 students coming from 63 countries, and Kresge Café has been our town square. It is where classroom lessons, personal histories, and collective passions intersect; where profound ideas are exchanged and close friendships are formed. We sat at the same table with legislators working to make health a fundamental human right; we sat with policymakers who advocate affordable health care for all; and we sat with social workers who are on the front lines of making health care accessible to every member of the community.
The conversations we had around those tables have been the most rewarding part of my experience at the School, and I can only look back with gratitude and amazement. They taught me that serving is not a privilege but a responsibility. And it was Susanna who taught me that serving is not only an act of kindness but a means of deepening our shared humanity.
Today we graduate from the Harvard Chan School, and tomorrow we will go to our new homes. Class of 2016, I ask you: How are you going to bring Kresge Café to your community? Who are you going to invite? And how are you going to serve them?
I encourage you to set the table, prepare everyone a seat, and invite not only the decision-makers, but also the voiceless, the silenced, and the underserved so that you will understand the frustrations of Susanna, the barriers to health in your community—And, most importantly, so that you will respect everyone’s input, voices, and experiences equally.
Photo: J.D. Levine
Students urged to lead a life of ‘service and integrity’
Commencement day photo gallery
Commencement eve photo gallery
Storify, a collection of photos taken by students, families, and friends
Student, faculty, and staff award winners
Acting Dean David Hunter address
Clinton Foundation President Donna Shalala address
Alumni Council President-elect Rashad Massoud address