May 27, 2011 — HSPH Graduates Urged To Become Leaders, Transform Public Health
Dean Julio Frenk opened the 2011 Commencement Ceremonies on a sunny spring day May 26 with the following message to the assembled graduates: “You came to Harvard School of Public Health because you wanted to devote yourselves to a cause—and to master some area of public health that you believe will better equip you to improve the health of people in Boston or Los Angeles, in Albania or Jordan, Nigeria or Thailand. The process of mastering your chosen field has ‘demanded your all.’ But for us here as your teachers, our goal is not only to help you master your chosen field. Our goal is also to help you become leaders who can use that mastery to make transformative improvements in the public’s health.”
During the ceremony, held before an overflow crowd in a tent in the Kresge courtyard, 478 degrees were awarded: 13 Doctors of Philosophy, two Doctors of Public Health, 57 Doctors of Science, 13 Masters of Arts, 242 Masters of Public Health, and 151 Masters of Science. At a festive reception the evening before Commencement, 14 students, eight faculty, and two staff members were selected for special recognition.
Students from 61 countries, 31 U.S. states, and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico received degrees. Six out of every 10 members of the Class of 2011 were women.
A Holistic Approach
The Commencement Address was delivered by Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, MPH ’65, Special Envoy to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on climate change, former Prime Minister of Norway, and former Director-General of the World Health Organization. Arriving on scholarship to HSPH as a 25-year-old Norwegian physician, she spoke of connecting with people from around the world, gaining a global perspective on health, and establishing a life-long interest in the well-being of women and children. Four decades later, she has joined with Nelson Mandela in the Elders, an independent group of eminent world leaders offering their influence and experience to address human suffering. (Read a short bio of Dr. Brundtland.)
Dr. Brundtland said the seeds for many of the skills she has used throughout her career date back to her time at HSPH. “I learned so much more about the links between humans and nature, our societies, cultures and our environment. Ecology was a new word and a new world, but it was in our curriculum! I learned to always look for the close and near as well as the far away, the small as well as the large—through a holistic lens. This holistic approach is Public Health at its best. It is preventive medicine at its core. It relates to our minds as well as to our bodies, to the links between us as humans, to the communities and the societies we create, to our surroundings and the environment in which we live,” she said in her remarks.
“Today, it also relates to Planet Earth itself—as humanity faces fundamental challenges in our relationship with nature,” Dr. Brundtland said. “We need to sense and reflect, analyze and act based on a holistic approach, fully cognizant of how interdependent we all have become, in our own societies, and across the globe. Forever linked together in my own mind, I realized how the key issues of development— economy and finance, environment, health and education—could all only be dealt with on the basis of shared values and concerns, on human rights for both women and men, and on dignity for all. This holistic way of thinking is also the only real basis for peace and security. Health itself tells perhaps the strongest story of globalization and the need for shared values and action to promote safety across the world.”
New Fellowship Announced
In his introduction, Dean Frenk said, “Few people have had an impact on society as globally as Dr. Brundtland.” He presented Dr. Brundtland with this year’s Julius B. Richmond Award, the highest honor offered by HSPH. Dean Frenk also announced a new Senior Leadership Fellows initiative established within HSPH’s Division of Policy Translation and Leadership Development. The first four international fellows will be named the Gro Harlem Brundtland Senior Leadership Fellows in honor of her many global health achievements. These first four fellows, who will come to the School over two years, have been funded by the government of Norway through the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services. They will be selected from low- and middle- income countries, with a priority for someone from Africa to fill at least one of the fellowships. The Senior Leadership Fellows are men and women who have recently served in high-level positions in government, nonprofit organizations, or multilateral agencies. They will spend a semester in residence at HSPH, teaching and sharing their decision-making experiences with students, while also collaborating with renowned academic colleagues. The first Fellow is expected to arrive at HSPH in the spring of 2012.
‘Imagine a New Reality’
Student speaker Dr. Lakshmi Nayana Vootakuru, who was awarded an MPH in health policy and management, exemplified the passion to change the world that drives HSPH students. Dr.Vootakuru is a physician from Sydney, Australia, who is currently completing her training in anesthetics. She is a Robert G. Menzies Scholar, a joint award from The Harvard Club of Australia, the Australian National University, and the Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Foundation. The award recognizes an individual’s ability, leadership, and vision and potential for making a significant contribution to Australia. Before coming to HSPH, Dr.Vootakuru was a policy officer for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. That experience inspired her to look to policy development as a means of societal change. At Harvard, she was selected to participate in the “Harvard Square to Oval Office” Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. This program aims to fill the political pipeline with women in order to achieve a more equal gender balance among elected government representatives. Dr.Vootakuru has served on the HSPH Student Government, the Harvard-wide Graduate Council, and helped facilitate the signature Harvard Leadership Conference.
Dr. Vootakuru discussed her experiences as a medical student working with indigenous communities in remote areas of Australia. One community of 200 people had been plagued by several suicides of young boys, who had been impacted by poverty, substance abuse, historical injustice, and community breakdown. “What made the situation even more devastating was the desperation that gripped this community as they worried not if but when the next child would follow suit. At that moment, I understood what it was like to be held hostage by fear,” she said.
“Public health to me is about re-imagining this society—to one where education and opportunity are plentiful and access to services is available to those who need it most and can ask for it least. Yes, in this most scientific of fields, firmly rooted in epidemiology and biostatistics, the most salient feature to me is … imagination. Because that is always where transformation begins. Imagination is the ability to form images, sensations and concepts, in a moment when they are not perceivable through sight, hearing or any of our other senses. Surely that moment is now, when economies, governments, and societies face crises, when challenges seem intractable and solutions seem unattainable,” she said.
“So, if you, like me, believe that health is not a privilege but a universal human right … that sexual health education is tied to ever changing political agendas … are sad that even with the wave of change that brought the first African-American President to office, that health disparities continue to plaque minority populations … then, this is the time to imagine a new reality. Because ultimately, imagination is the foundation from which this new reality will spring,” she said.
The Class of 2011 has just come “full circle,” Dr.Vootakuru concluded. “Graduates, as we prepare to leave this formidable institution, I ask you to not forget why it is that you came here in the first place. Whatever it is that public health specifically means to you, remember the words of Henry David Thoreau: ‘This world is but a canvas to our imaginations.’ May your imagination give you the vision to create a hundred new realities in every corner of the globe and in every frontier of public health.”
Dr. Elsbeth Kalenderian gave greetings on behalf of the HSPH Alumni Association, of which she is President-elect. Dr. Kalenderian is an oral surgeon by training who received a master’s degree from HSPH. An executive with extensive experience in the healthcare, human services, and public health fields, she is Chair, Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology and Assistant Dean for Clinical Affairs at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. She is currently involved in NIH-funded research focused on dental diagnostic terminology in electronic health records.
“Consider yourself to be public health ambassadors,” Dr. Kalenderian told the graduates. She urged the graduates as they leave HSPH and pursue careers as doctors, dentists, consultants, and other specialties to take a stand against the nation’s number one killer—coronary artery disease—by advocating that dental professionals be permitted to take blood pressure readings on patients to help identify and refer to doctors many of the 73 million people in the U.S. who have high blood pressure and don’t know it. Likewise, she asked medical professionals to consider offering fluoride and teeth sealants to help protect children from cavities. “The mouth is not just for the dentist,” she said. “Find ways to bring important public health (initiatives) to your patients and clients.”
‘Explore. Dream. Discover.’
In concluding the day’s events, Dean Frenk observed: “As I approach the emblematic mark of 1,000 days as Dean, I continue to marvel at the vibrant energy of our institution. Every one of those days has been enriched by my interactions with faculty, staff, alumni, and students. You, in particular, infuse me with a sense of renewal and possibility. That is what makes our School such an amazing place. You get on the elevator and find yourself standing next to a student who has returned from working with Senegalese scientists on malaria transmission—and happens to have mastered the local language of Wolof in the process to be more effective in her work … You walk down the hall and encounter a physician-scientist from Korea who is assessing how precarious employment affects the health of his fellow countrymen. Another student describes how she is forging a relationship with the Boston Public Schools to help develop practical, comprehensive, and culturally sensitive health education programs on topics ranging from healthy eating to violence prevention to sexual health. Another mentions that she is working to track the recent cholera outbreak in Haiti,” he said.
“As you leave this graduation ceremony today, there is a tendency to think that perhaps your education is now over, at least for a while. You have given your all, and mastered what you came here to master. But nothing could be further from the truth. Learning and developing your skills as leaders are lifelong pursuits. We hope that you will return here whenever you need advice, consultation, and fellowship. Become active in your alumni association. Sign up for our leadership programs and courses through our Continuing Education department. Stay in contact with those who have inspired you—even keep in touch on Facebook and Linked In.
“You are about to head out on an exciting journey, the quest for your true calling. And so I leave with you with this thought from the great American author Mark Twain, who once wrote: ‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’”
–Marge Dwyer. Photos by Kent Dayton and Suzanne Camarata.