May 27, 2021—Most people don’t think about public health unless there’s a crisis, Dean Michelle Williams noted during Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s 2021 virtual graduation ceremony. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, the field has become more visible and relevant than ever.
“The world is realizing that public health is just that—public. That it’s everyone’s business. And that we simply haven’t invested in public health like we should,” Williams said.
Crises create the opportunity to look at old problems in new ways and to imagine something better, she said. Noting that applications for next year’s class have gone up by 40%, she told graduates, “People want to be like you. They want to be part of the solution.”
The video ceremony, held May 27, 2021, acknowledged the accomplishments of 617 graduates. Degrees granted included doctor of philosophy (66), doctor of public health (17), doctor of science (6), master in health care management (30), master of public health (366), and master of science (132).
Robin Glover, associate dean for student services, read graduates’ names while slides showed their name, degree and major, and photo.
In addition to Williams, speakers at the ceremony included student speaker Russell Simons, MPH ’21; graduation speaker Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization; and Carmon Davis, MPH ’94, president of the Harvard Chan School Alumni Association. Dr. Tedros was awarded the 2021 Julius B. Richmond Award, the highest honor given by Harvard Chan School, in conjunction with the ceremony.
The event also included two opening videos. Prior to the start of the ceremony, a socially distanced brass band performed traditional music between congratulatory messages from high-profile individuals, including former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Additional congratulatory messages, including from Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were featured throughout the program. The second opening video featured highlights from the year, including students volunteering as contact tracers and faculty members providing vital information and commentary about COVID-19 in the media.
A graduation page included 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.
Taking up a global challenge
In her welcome remarks, Williams commended students for their efforts as public health practitioners during the pandemic, including volunteering with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, fighting misinformation online, and reaching out to isolated senior citizens.
“COVID-19 taught the world that we are only as healthy as the sickest among us, and only as safe as the most vulnerable,” Williams said. She noted that while the virus does not discriminate, society does, and public health experts must face the unfinished business of inequity.
“As the class of 2021, you have already begun taking up this challenge through your research, your community service, your entrepreneurship, and your advocacy,” she said. “And I trust that you will continue to lead us toward a more healthy and equitable future for all.”
Public health is political
Simons, a medical student at the University of Chicago, spoke about his frustration with the limits of medicine in meeting the needs of his socioeconomically disadvantaged patients. “There is no pill for injustice,” he said. “The medical guidelines I was studying didn’t talk much about housing, poverty, or structural racism.”
Feeling a responsibility to address the complex issues affecting his patients, Simons came to Harvard Chan School to study health policy. He also served as a public health fellow in the office of Massachusetts State Senator Jo Comerford.
Over the past year, Simons said, he has come to see that caring about health is a political act, and that social change can be medicine. He also noted that while he used to find comfort in the Serenity Prayer—which calls for the courage to accept things that can’t be changed—he now prefers the revision by academic and activist Angela Davis: “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
Dr. Tedros began his remarks by reflecting on the 1918 flu pandemic. He noted that while it killed more people than World War I, it has been overshadowed in history by the war, and its lessons were forgotten. When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, he said, the world was not ready.
While acknowledging the difficulties students have faced during the pandemic, he said that this experience has given them an incredible education. “You are living history,” he said. “The lessons of this pandemic will stay with you. You are bearing witness.”
He advised graduates to build their proficiency in three skills he called “basic but not easy”—listening, asking questions, and looking. Listening is perhaps the hardest, he said. When they are working in communities, he said, public health practitioners should view the people they serve not as beneficiaries of their expertise, but as individuals working every day for their own survival. Listen to the wisdom they have to offer, he said, and to people with opposing views and from different disciplines. “People do things for a reason, even if you don’t understand it,” he said. He urged graduates to be humble, and to never be afraid to admit when their efforts aren’t working.
He congratulated the graduates on their accomplishments, and offered final words of advice as they prepared to embark on new chapters in their lives and careers: “Don’t think for a minute that your education has stopped.”
‘You will be the heroes’
Davis welcomed the graduates as new members of the Harvard Chan Alumni Association. She spoke about her experience as a pediatrician treating children from vulnerable families, and acknowledged the many “heroes” of the pandemic, from researchers to essential workers. “Today we honor you,” she said to the graduates. “You have shown the world that you can overcome extraordinary challenges. You will be the heroes in many lives.”