May 28, 2015 — “You are not just creating a resume. You are creating a biography,” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Dean Julio Frenk told graduates today at the School’s 2015 Commencement Ceremony. He urged graduates to stay alert for “the tap on the shoulder from unexpected opportunities,” and to not be afraid to follow career paths that diverge from traditional trajectories.
In his final Commencement address before stepping down as Dean later this summer, Frenk told graduates, “As you move forward from today, I urge you to make decisions based on your deepest values.”
At the Commencement ceremony, held on a sunny afternoon before an enthusiastic crowd of graduates and their families in a tent in Kresge courtyard, 519 degrees were awarded: 28 Doctors of Philosophy, 51 Doctors of Science, 323 Masters of Public Health, 132 Masters of Science, and 12 Masters of Arts. Graduates came from 32 countries and 34 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia. Fifty-nine percent of the graduates were women. At a festive reception the evening before Commencement, awards were presented to 24 students, 9 faculty, and 4 staff members.
Speaking to the graduates with “bittersweet” emotions, Frenk called his years as Dean of the School “among the most rewarding of my career.” He reflected on the School’s “extraordinary” activity over the last two years, from the launch of the Centennial year in October 2013, to the transformational gift from the Chan family’s Morningside Foundation, spearheaded by Gerald Chan, SM ’75, ScD ’79.
“Of all the many things I will miss about this School, one of the most significant is you, our students,” he said, praising their “energy and commitment.”
Frenk advised the graduates that preparing for the unexpected would be central to their mission as public health leaders, and that it can often take terrible forms — such as the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa and earthquakes in Nepal. “For the past century, the School’s faculty and alumni have been on the frontlines of these and countless other public health crises, wherever and whenever they arise,” he said.
The School’s new name reflects the global nature of its work in the 21st century, Frenk said. “I will leave my deanship confident that this School is positioned to change the world at a time when public health progress depends as never before on global collaboration,” he said.
An ambitious agenda
The Commencement address was given by Leslie Ramsammy who, until recently, was Guyana’s minister of agriculture. He previously served as president of the World Health Assembly and, for almost 10 years, as Guyana’s minister of health, where he played a pivotal role in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. In his introduction, Frenk praised Ramsammy’s “impressive and extensive public health stewardship.”
Ramsammy told graduates, “I present myself today unapologetically as a dreamer, one who dares to imagine a world where people can live longer, disability-free lives than we do now.” He said, “I deem it an injustice that some people are born into circumstances that determine whether they will live or how long they will live.”
He called on graduates to embrace his call for a “75X25 Initiative” — development of a global strategy and a financial package to ensure that every country in the world achieves a life expectancy of 75 years by 2025.
Ramsammy laid out the public health challenges that graduates will face, including global obesity, climate change, aging populations, and the emerging threat of antimicrobial resistance. It may sound daunting, he said, but the global development mechanisms that exist today make achieving equity more possible than in previous generations.
“I am confident,” Ramsammy said, “that by the time your generation passes the baton on to the next, you will hand them an even better world than my generation gave you.”
‘Refractors and redefiners’
Student speaker Shaniece Criss, who earned a Doctor of Science degree from the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, worked with Ramsammy prior to coming to the School. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Guyana at the Ministry of Health, she trained more than 1,000 health center staff and students about reproductive health and broadened her reach by hosting a live, weekly television show. After graduation, Criss will focus on public health, policy, and politics at Harvard Kennedy School as a Presidential Public Service Fellow.
She told graduates about the person who inspired her to go into public health — her “Grandmama Sarah.” She recalled visiting her in the Mississippi Delta as a child and helping pick collard greens in her backyard garden. In her grandmother, Criss saw a woman who overcame racism and redefined her life as a mother and educator “who provided a voice for others.” After her death from cancer, Criss came to realize that harmful aspects of her grandmother’s social environment had likely played a role in shortening her life.
Public health provides a way to redefine seemingly intractable problems, Criss said, and a way for practitioners to “refract negative health exposures into life-giving outcomes.”
She urged graduates to “continue to be refractors and redefiners, so that one day future generations, including my two-year-old daughter, will share our story and ensure the voiceless prevail.”
Anthony Dias, MPH ’04, president of the HSPH Alumni Association, delivered alumni greetings. Dias is vice president at the Connecticut Hospital Association, where he provides strategic leadership on the design of analytic innovations and new services for hospitals in Connecticut and in other states. He urged graduates to connect with the School’s global alumni network.
“You will realize that as you maintain your ties with the School in whatever way possible and network with its alumni, it will enrich your Harvard experience and your public health career,” he said.
Photos: Kent Dayton
Commencement photo gallery
Loan relief awards help students address public health disparities
Commencement Eve photo gallery
Dean Julio Frenk address
Student speaker Shaniece Criss address
Alumni Association President Anthony Dias address