At Convocation, Harvard Chan School graduates urged to meet climate and public health crises with fresh thinking, collective action

Graduates at Convocation

May 22, 2024 — “The world needs you,” Dean Andrea Baccarelli told 2024 graduates at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Convocation ceremony on May 22. “We need your intellect. Your generosity. Your tenacity. Your empathy. Your bravery.” He and other speakers during the ceremony noted that the choice to take on a career devoted to advancing health for all will not be easy; however, they said, graduates will always have the School’s talented and powerful network behind them.

Melissa Hoffer, Massachusetts’ first ever Climate Chief, delivered the keynote address, calling climate disruption the “defining megatrend of our time.” Collective action will be necessary to fight the climate crisis, she said. Hoffer told graduates that she hoped they would be leaders in developing a new collective intelligence around addressing climate change “incorporating the best of our learned traditions but cross disciplinary, intersectional, un-siloed, free to conceive unforeseen possibilities, co-benefits, and new pathways.”

The Harvard Chan School ceremony, held at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury Crossing, is called a “convocation” instead of “commencement” in recognition of the fact that Harvard University doesn’t officially confer degrees until Commencement exercises on May 23 in Cambridge.

Walking across the stage were 654 students, who will earn the following degrees: doctor of philosophy (56), doctor of public health (5), master in health care management (24), master of public health (402), and master of science (167). Graduates came from 38 U.S. states and 66 countries.

At a reception on May 21, awards were presented to graduating students, faculty, and staff members. Award recipients were recognized by Jane Kim, dean for academic affairs, during Convocation.

Three important questions

Dean Andrea Baccarelli
Dean Andrea Baccarelli

In his first Convocation address as dean, Baccarelli shared life changing advice he received from a teacher when he was 16. At the time, Baccarelli was putting aside his dream of professional soccer stardom and trying to figure out his life’s calling. One day, he said, his teacher asked the class three questions: What are your dreams? What are your skills? And what does the world need?

These questions ultimately led Baccarelli to find his true calling as a public health researcher in academia studying how environmental exposures impact human health.

He urged graduates to ask themselves the first two questions, noting the breadth of dreams and skills they represent. “Maybe you dream of addressing a specific disease or social determinant of health,” he said. “You might be a whiz with numbers, or you could be a talented organizer who can rally individuals to your cause.” And when it comes to the third question, there are a great many things the world needs that public health professionals can provide, he said.

“Technologies will advance, allowing us to unlock new knowledge. Our world will face major changes that prompt unforeseen challenges and force us to think in new ways,” he said, noting that while he proud of his own research, his heart swells when he thinks of what the graduates will accomplish. “You will carry forward our work to ensure health and justice for all people for decades to come,” Baccarelli said.

Disrupting the status quo

Melissa Hoffer
Melissa Hoffer

Hoffer, who has held leadership roles in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of General Counsel and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, said that while we would never wish for the adversity climate change causes, addressing its challenges opens up possibilities—and there is power in that.

Hoffer called on graduates to create new ways to think and speak about the climate crisis. She said that trying to solve it with the same mindset that created the problem—that humans are separate from the laws of nature—will be unsuccessful.

“That mindset allows many of us, especially the most privileged among us, to continue to live as if in a trance,” Hoffer said. Even in the face of ample evidence of the effects of climate change, such as extreme storms and droughts, people fail to stop and fully absorb the reality of the crisis we’re facing.

While it can be comforting to keep planning and executing decisions based on assumptions from the past and the way that things have always been done, the climate crisis requires nimble responses from governments and institutions, she said. Inertia may have catastrophic results.

“You in your roles must forge new paths that drive new outcomes,” she said, adding that this type of disruptive, radically ethical leadership will make it easier for others to follow.

Hoffer said that healing the moral injury many feel because of climate change will require a shift in the way humans see their relationship to the natural world. She called for thinking like a forest—understanding our place in the web of life and acting collectively. She asked, “What would it look like if our actions in the world reflected our understanding that our own human health and thriving is dependent on the health and integrity of the natural world?”

Sowing seeds of change

Ivan Hsiao
Ivan Hsiao

This year’s student speaker was Ivan Hsiao, who is receiving an MPH degree in health and social behavior. Hsiao is a transgender entrepreneur who founded the startup Trans Health HQ to decrease clinicians’ barriers to providing gender-affirming care. They said that public health work with the trans community gave them a roadmap for understanding their own story and for envisioning a more vibrant future. But transitioning in their own life and fighting for trans health equity professionally has at times been painful, Hsiao said.

Hsiao said, “As public health practitioners we are familiar with the uncertainty and loneliness of changing the status quo—especially if you are the first and only in your field, especially when some people do not want the transitions you are leading the world through.” They said they found supporters at Harvard Chan School and called on their fellow graduates to look to each other during tough times.

“Let us sow the seeds for change,” Hsiao said, “so that together, we bring the vision of a healthy, just, and dignified future, to the present.”

Strength in community engagement

Jennifer Bishop
Jennifer Bishop

Jennifer Bishop, president of the Harvard Chan School Alumni Association, welcomed graduates into the community of more than 15,000 alumni across the full spectrum of public health expertise. She urged graduates to stay engaged with the Harvard Chan School community, and to also embrace the principles of community engagement in their work.

She said that this means recognizing that our lives and our health are interconnected. In public health work, community engagement involves listening to the needs of people being served and including them in decision-making, she said. This type of work is critical for making meaningful change to address the world’s most pressing health challenges. She said, “Whether it is advocating for access to health care, promoting disease prevention, or championing environmental justice, our ability to create lasting impact hinges on our willingness to engage with those we serve.”

Amy Roeder

Photos: Kent Dayton, Ben Gebo

Additional coverage

Watch video of Harvard Chan School’s 2024 Convocation
Graduation 2024: Award winners