Graduation 2020: Dean Michelle Williams address


May 28, 2020

Welcome Remarks

Even though we aren’t physically together, it’s wonderful to be here with you, your proud professors, and your families and friends who have logged on from all over the world.

When you first stepped on campus, maybe you imagined what your graduation day would feel like. Perhaps you envisioned sitting outside on a lovely spring day, listening to your commencement speaker. Maybe you pictured holding and huddling within six feet of your classmates for photos, being handed your diploma without having to have hand sanitizer available. And perhaps you imagined hugging, endlessly, your family and friends after the ceremony.

You probably didn’t foresee what has come to pass for your graduation—or for the world you’re graduating into.

Our community has long feared a global pandemic like COVID-19. But few predicted that today the world would be engulfed in the worst public health crisis in a century. That a novel virus would infect more than 2 million people around the globe and claim the lives of more than 150 thousand. That our way of life would be completely upended and, in some inevitable ways, altered forever.

But you have risen to this unprecedented occasion in ways that have humbled us as teachers and administrators. I don’t just mean the way you’ve adapted to the new normal, abruptly moving off campus, finishing your degrees in isolation, defending your dissertations via Zoom.

More than that: you’ve gone from pupils to practitioners literally overnight.

By now, most of you have heard me say that public health is everywhere and nowhere. What I mean is that the work we do is critical—and yet so often invisible outside of our own field. We all take the cleanliness of our water for granted until there’s a contamination crisis. We don’t give food supply chains much thought until the grocery store shelves are empty. We commute on the T without thinking about what pathogens might be traveling along for the ride.

Well, no longer.

Today, public health is everywhere. It’s on the top of mind for nearly every person in nearly every country around the globe.

The issues and topics you’ve studied—virology, epidemiology, environmental justice, immunology, food security, and social determinants of health—have come into glaring focus for all to see.

Luckily, your expertise puts you in a unique position to help the world respond. And so many of you have jumped into that response already.

Alongside professors, researchers, and alumni, Harvard Chan School students are mining data to develop strategies for continuing to flatten the curve.

You’re researching new ways to fight the many ripple effects of this crisis.

You’ve started groups like Students Against COVID-19 to share guidance with the public and to squash misinformation.

Hundreds of you have joined a volunteer task force to support the Massachusetts Department of Health.

And countless more of you are part of our frontline health care workforce, putting yourselves inTO harm’s way to save the lives of others.

Everything you’ve studied during your time here has made you capable public health leaders—but it’s the way you’ve stepped up in the face of this crisis that will make you an exceptional class.

And because of it, your class will be remembered for generations to come. You’ll be the public health graduates who lived through the worst public health crisis of the past hundred years, and who used that experience to innovate and to develop solutions to the most pressing challenges we face—challenges ranging from combating infectious diseases, to addressing climate change, to improving the lives of billions across the globe.

It has been my honor to serve as your dean and to do so alongside each and every one of you. One day, when this crisis is in the rearview mirror, we will all come back together in person. And when we do, it will be for a celebration for the ages.

Until then, I am rooting for each and every one of you, and I am so proud of all of you, for all that you have done and will do to make the world a healthier and more just place. To you, I congratulate you, the class of 2020. Congratulations, and thank you!

Closing remarks 

I want to thank you all for joining us today. Thank you especially to our commencement speaker Dr. Muhammad Ali Pate, and thank you to our student speaker Nadhira Nuraini Afifa, and our alumni association president Carmon Davis for sharing their inspirational and uplifting words. And thank you to all of the faculty and staff who have made today’s online ceremony possible.

These may be extraordinary times. But nothing can take away from this extraordinary moment, this moment which marks your entry into the company of learned women and men and the beginning of your life as a graduate of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

May your professional paths forward be filled with exploration, joy, and satisfaction as you use your intellectual talents to improve lives and make the world a healthier, more sustainable and more just place.

Congratulations again to all of you—and my best wishes for you on your journeys ahead!