‘Today, public health is everywhere’

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Clockwise from top left: Dean Michelle Williams, Nadhira Nuraini Afifa, Muhammad Ali Pate, Robin Glover, Jane Kim, Carmon Davis

May 28, 2020 – At Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s 2020 graduation ceremony, Dean Michelle Williams acknowledged that no one would have envisioned graduating virtually amid a global pandemic.

But Williams—in academic regalia, speaking from her home via video—said that, in spite of the current crisis, Harvard Chan School students have responded impressively.

“You have risen to this unprecedented occasion in ways that have humbled us as teachers and administrators,” she said. “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.”

The video ceremony, held May 28, acknowledged the accomplishments of 571 graduates. Degrees granted included doctor of philosophy (37), doctor of public health (17), doctor of science (22), master in health care management (25), master of public health (351), and master of science (119).

In addition to Williams, speakers at the ceremony included student speaker Nadhira Nuraini Afifa; graduation speaker Muhammad Ali Pate, Global Director of the Health, Nutrition and Population Global Practice at the World Bank and Julio Frenk Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership in Harvard Chan School’s Department of Global Health and Population; and Carmon Davis, MPH ’94, president of the Harvard Chan School Alumni Association. Robin Glover, associate dean of student services, hosted the event.

The virtual ceremony featured an opening video featuring photos of students in classrooms, labs, and campus events throughout the year. Jane Kim, dean for academic affairs, announced student, faculty, and staff awards. Following the speeches, Glover read graduates’ names while slides showed their name, degree and major, and photo.

The graduation page featured congratulatory messages from department chairs, program directors, and administrators at Harvard Chan School. And a live social stream page allowed students, faculty, staff, and alumni to share real-time posts with reflections, well wishes, and memories about their experiences at the School. See some of the posts below.

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Students stepped up

“Today, public health is everywhere,” Williams told the graduates in her welcome remarks. “The issues you’ve studied—virology, epidemiology, environmental justice, immunology, food security, the social determinants of health—have come glaringly into focus.”

She praised the graduates for using their expertise to aid in the COVID-19 response. She cited some of their efforts, including starting the group Students Against COVID-19 to share guidance with the public and combat misinformation, volunteering for a task force to support the Massachusetts Department of Health, and working on the health care front lines 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,” she said.

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Finding ‘equality, inclusivity, unity’

Afifa, who came to Harvard Chan School from a small town in Indonesia, told her fellow graduates that when she first arrived, she was afraid of being seen as different. “Even by just wearing a hijab, I already made my identity clear without even needing to tell anyone what I believed in,” she said. “I had seen a lot of news around Islamophobia and it concerned me.”

But in her second week at the School, her perception started to change. She learned that the School provided a praying room equipped with everything she needed. “What made it even more special, it was my Jewish friend who showed me the room because he saw me praying under the emergency stairs,” she said, adding, “Equality, inclusivity, unity—I cannot think of any better place I can learn it all but here.”

She welcomed her fellow graduates to “the often exciting, sometimes exhausting, rarely appreciated, but always important world of public health.”

Tending the flock

Pate spoke about growing up in Nigeria in a family of herdsmen. “I certainly never expected to be delivering commencement remarks at Harvard, via videoconference or otherwise,” he said.

In addition to his position at the World Bank, Pate is director of the Washington, D.C.-based Global Financing Facility for Women, Children, and Adolescents. Previously he served as Minister of State for Health in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“It turns out that those who tend livestock have a lot to teach us about public health,” said Pate. He spoke about how herdsmen and women must not only look after the physical needs of their flock, but must understand “our relative place in the food chain, the effects of the sun and the water and the land, and how the health of each individual animal depends on an ecosystem.”

Herdsmen must make do with few resources, make sacrifices for the greater good, and often make what amount to life and death decisions, he said. They have to earn the trust of their flock and their community and corral everyone toward a shared goal in order to survive the harshness of nature.

“Is any of this starting to sound familiar to you?” he asked. “These are some of the fundamentals of public health leadership.”

There’s never been a more critical time for leaders who can act selflessly in the interest of society, who will do the right thing, who will inspire and empower others, and who will be accountable, said Pate.

“The work of the public health leader is, in many ways, the work of the herdsman at scale,” he said. “With keen observation, using scientific tools, galvanizing people from a range of backgrounds and perspectives towards a common goal, to not just overcome a crisis, but to make progress toward preventing the next one—that is what the Harvard Chan School has prepared you to do.”

In praise of adaptability

Davis welcomed the graduates as new members of the Harvard Chan Alumni Association.

She talked about how, after having unexpected surgery several years ago, her doctor outlined restrictions on her activities. He called it her “new normal.” She had to give up some exercise classes and sports forever. It wasn’t easy, she said, but “I made the necessary changes.”

Likewise, everyone now is facing a “new normal,” she said. She praised students for how they’ve dealt with disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “You remained flexible, creative, and used your talents in the global efforts during this pandemic,” she said. “You demonstrated the knowledge and skills that will serve you well in the evolving field of public health.”

She added, “The world is looking to you for the solutions, as we all face ‘the new normal’ together.”

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Karen Feldscher

Additional coverage

Watch video of Harvard Chan School’s 2020 graduation
Check out the social stream page
Graduation 2020: Dean Michelle Williams address
Graduation 2020: Student speaker Nadhira Nuraini Afifa address
Graduation 2020: Muhammad Ali Pate address
Graduation 2020: Alumni Association President Carmon Davis address