May 23, 2018
I came here to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 1992. As an international student, I was invited to a special two-week seminar before the MPH classes started. The School provided this gathering as a way for us international students to learn about our new environment so we could hit the ground running. During these two weeks, School administrators talked to us about what to expect from the School and what to expect from the student experience. They told us about life in Boston. And they even spoke about how to write an essay, since many of us were used to styles of writing different from those of the American essay.
Yet the most curious thing we heard was about “culture shock.” I don’t mean culture shock from being in America. They were talking about being at Harvard. They assured us that since we had been admitted, we had all the necessary qualifications to succeed at the School. However, they warned us that the one thing that might cause us to fail was the culture shock of being intimidated by the Harvard name.
I was here with my wife. We were newlyweds at the time, and at night I would go home and talk about my classes. I would ask her if she was experiencing this “culture shock,” and her response was always that this place was great and she didn’t feel anything like that. Nor did I. We both loved it! Time flew by, and the next thing I knew, I was graduating. The ceremony was beautiful… just like today’s… and then I was on a plane heading back home to Palestine.
I had taken leave from work to get my MPH, and when I returned, the day after we landed, I went straight back to work at the same place. But when I came home that evening, I said to my wife, “Remember the culture shock that they talked to us about at Harvard? It hit me today!”
I don’t know if they still talk to you about culture shock or not, but be prepared for it! The culture shock comes when you go back to work and find that although you have moved light years ahead, because of your incredible education here at the School…. back at work everything is pretty much where you left it. Even perhaps exactly where you left it!
Now, it doesn’t mean that the field of public health has stayed the same. On the contrary! We are looking at an ever-changing landscape. We’re looking at health conditions related to longevity, diseases that are connected to our new lifestyles, the double burden of illness in low- and middle-income countries. We’re looking at new emerging diseases, like Ebola and Zika. And we’re looking at epidemics facilitated by our increased movement across political and geographical boundaries. Today, we are examining our culture of “heroism” in global health, in which skilled expatriates directly work filling needed health care positions in foreign countries. Now we are shifting from capacity filling to capacity building through enabling host-country nationals to do the work themselves in order to develop sustainable systems and for host countries to take over ownership of their public health infrastructures.
What you have learned at the Harvard Chan School has prepared you for this evolving landscape and importantly, for continually learning to face the future challenges in public health. The world needs you and all the new thinking, methods, and tools you have learned here, which will help you to move forward in this rapidly changing field.
As president of the Harvard Chan School Alumni Association, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that as you graduate, you will become an important part of our vibrant, 14,000-strong global alumni network. You will find colleagues, peers, and mentors all over the world to connect with and work with—and these relationships you develop may last a lifetime. This is a network of individuals who are among the world’s best public health scientists and practitioners. I invite you to join the Alumni Association’s activities, committees, and council as well, so you can become even more deeply involved in our global public health efforts.
In closing, let me say—just in case—please be prepared for the culture shock!
photo: Kent Dayton
At Harvard Chan School Convocation, a call for collaboration
Convocation 2018 photo gallery
Commencement 2018 photo gallery
Commencement 2018 slide show
Commencement and Convocation 2018 videos
Commencement 2018: Award winners
Commencement 2018 Awards photo gallery
Dean Michelle Williams address
Former President of Ireland and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson address
Student speaker Jamison Langguth address