Speaking to the 312 Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) graduates at the school’s Convocation at the Boston University Track and Tennis Center on Saturday, May 19, Dr. Karen DeSalvo urged the audience to think beyond health and build a more equitable world.
“We are healers, not of broken bones but of broken communities,” she said.
Dr. DeSalvo is the former acting assistant secretary for health and national coordinator for health information technology at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the former health commissioner of New Orleans. She was a professor at the School of Medicine and Public Health at Tulane University in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005.
“On a day in early September, just about two weeks after the storm arrived, I found myself standing on the front steps of what had previously been Charity Hospital, and I looked around and saw something amazing,” Dr. DeSalvo recalled. She saw academics and healthcare professionals working with charities, organizers, the faith community, and others, “yes to rebuild, but more importantly to reimagine and reinvent a city that had been plagued by poverty, by poor health, and by inequity long before our latest hurricane,” she said.
“After the waters receded, we saw we had the power to do more together.”
Dr. DeSalvo already knew from experience that where a person lives has a tremendous effect on every aspect of their life. Raised by a single mother in Austin, Texas, Dr. DeSalvo recalled when her family moved from an unsafe neighborhood with an underfunded school to another neighborhood just six miles across town. “My ZIP code was quantifiably the difference between a life of struggle and me standing on this stage today,” she said. “I’m so grateful to my mom for the sacrifices that she made to get me to a better ZIP code, but we can’t move all kids to a better ZIP code.”
Instead, Dr. DeSalvo challenged the graduates to make every ZIP code healthy, safe, and equipped with educational opportunity, economic development, transportation, and everything else people need to thrive. She closed by encouraging the graduates to seek every opportunity to take part in this new role for public health. “You have more power than you know,” she said. “Go out and build our community as only you can, live inside your hope, and use your power to change the world.”
Student speaker Ms. Fatima Dainkeh, an MPH recipient working at the intersection of reproductive health, racial equity, and social justice, stressed the importance of speaking up and addressing difficult subjects. A black, Muslim child of immigrants who grew up in a low-income neighborhood, Ms. Dainkeh urged her fellow graduates to remember that conversations about structural oppression are not just theoretical, especially for public health professionals. “You will have to make decisions that will have an impact on someone’s life, on their family’s life, and on their community,” she said. “We can’t be uncomfortable talking about the structures that affect the very populations we swore we would protect.”
During Saturday’s ceremony, two faculty members were honored for teaching and scholarship. Dr. Yvette C. Cozier, associate professor of epidemiology and assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, received the Norman A. Scotch Award for Excellence in Teaching, awarded annually for outstanding and sustained contribution to the education program. Dr. Paola Sebastiani, professor of biostatistics, received the Faculty Career Award in Research and Scholarship.
Dr. Sandro Galea, dean and Robert A. Knox Professor, also congratulated Dr. James Wolff, associate professor of public health, for winning one of the university’s highest teaching honors, the Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching, which was presented at the main Boston University Commencement ceremony on May 20.
Read more about the BUSPH Convocation.