Commencement: HSPH graduates given call to action to make a difference

HSPH Commencement 2010
HSPH Commencement 2010

June 1, 2010 — Dean Julio Frenk opened the 2010 Commencement Ceremonies on a crystal clear late spring day May 27 by observing that for the day’s graduates “very few moments in life combine such intense feelings of accomplishment with a sense of restlessness, anticipation, and perhaps even a bit of trepidation about what lies ahead.”

During the ceremony, held before an overflow crowd in a tent in the Kresge courtyard, 509 degrees were awarded: 14 Doctors of Philosophy, three Doctors of Public Health, 51 Doctors of Science, 13 Masters of Arts, 268 Masters of Public Health, 159 Masters of Science and 14 Masters of Arts.

Students from 52 countries, 39 U.S. states, and Puerto Rico received degrees. Six out of every 10 members of the Class of 2010 were women.

“You are the next generation of public health leaders,” Dean Frenk said. “You are brimming with immense talent and accomplishment. It is my most fervent wish that your years at Harvard School of Public Health and your continued association with us will give you the capacity to produce knowledge; to re-create it in all those with whom you work, whether it be students or government leaders or the general public; and to translate that knowledge for the betterment of our common human experience.”

In the Commencement Address, Dr. Howard Koh, United States Assistant Secretary for Health, exhorted the graduates to combine knowledge with wisdom.

“Please remember that while the mind can be a magnificent and brilliant tool, in the end it is merely an instrument,” said Dr. Koh, who was named by President Obama to the federal public health job last year after six years at HSPH. Dr. Koh was the Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health, Associate Dean for Public Health Practice and director of the Division of Public Health Practice. He also served as Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner from 1997-2003.

“What matters more is the content of your character and the spirit of your soul,” Dr. Koh said. “And herein lies the profound difference between being smart and being wise.”

Student speaker Dr. Steven Edward John Moylan, who was awarded an MPH, exemplified the type of passion and compassion that Dr. Koh was talking about. While an undergraduate in his native Australia, where he was also an Australian Rules football player, Moylan narrowly escaped serious injury when a bomb went off near him while he was in Indonesia. It caused him to change his career path to medicine, and he began working with indigenous populations in rural Australia. That work led him to the field of public health.

Referring to a quote, Dr. Moylan said: “Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises. Those words for me sum up the goal of public health. Public health isn’t just about fixing problems, or treating infections, or preventing disease. It’s about creating opportunities, opportunities to be healthy, opportunities to live in just and free societies, opportunities to use your talents to the full, to realize your potential, and to fulfill your dreams.”

He talked about the frustration of working with the poor in his country’s outback. “Young indigenous mothers, no older than 15 or 16, from communities fractured by poverty and violence, would bring their children to hospital desperate for help,” he said. “Malnourished and dehydrated, the children suffered and too often died from preventable diseases not seen in the rest of Australia. Diseases related to poverty, poor sanitation, and hunger. I remember the feeling of helplessness.”

Still, Dr. Moylan said that since being at HSPH he believes that he can make a difference in the lives of such people — and he said they include the poor of inner city Boston “where drugs and violence make it more likely [that] young boys will go to jail than attend university.”

He concluded by issuing a call to action: “Among us sit the future of the public health profession, the future champions of public health research, the directors of health organizations, and the leaders of communities and nations. Success won’t come quickly, nor will it be easy. But I am optimistic. If together we make the commitment, here today, to strive for a world where all people get the opportunity to pursue their dreams, you never know what might happen.” Quoting anthropologist Margaret Mead, Moylan said: “A small group of thoughtful and committed citizens such as yourselves can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In concluding the day’s events, Dean Frenk observed:

“Alongside your formal educational experiences with your talented professors, each of you has inspired fellow classmates during your time here, thus contributing to their own learning and future success. And so, the impact that any one of you has on the public’s health will be a shared success. For you have helped each other to become more inspired researchers, more effective teachers, more enlightened policy makers, more devoted practitioners of public health, more compassionate human beings.”

He continued, “The reason they call this ceremony ‘commencement’ is because it signals a beginning, not the end. This word also means ‘origin,’ the point from which something sets out. In your particular case, it refers to the point of departure of an exciting journey, the quest for your inner calling, your true vocation, as Howard Koh said. In this irrepressible search be sure to always remember the wise words of the physician, writer, and Harvard dean [of the medical school], Oliver Wendell Holmes, who used to say: ‘Every calling is great when greatly pursued.’ As you go forth now, make sure you pursue your calling with the greatness that this School will always attempt to cultivate in its amazing students.”

–Michael Lasalandra. Photos by Suzanne Camarata and Kent Dayton.