You don’t have to be in a high-profile role to be a leader in public health. That was the message from Acting Dean David Hunter, to graduates gathered at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s 2016 Commencement Ceremony on May 26, 2016 in Boston.
While sometimes being a leader literally means leading a government, foundation, or university, “there is also another important type of leadership—one that does not necessarily come with public prominence,” Dr. Hunter said. “Rather, it’s about leading by example…leading a life of service and integrity, with potentially vast ripple effects.”
Under a big tent in the School’s courtyard on a summer-like day, 539 students received degrees: 16 Doctors of Philosophy, 61 Doctors of Science, 354 Masters of Public Health, 125 Masters of Science, and 17 Masters of Arts. Graduates came from 63 countries and 38 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia. Thirty-eight percent of the graduates were international students, and 64% were women.
At a festive reception the evening before Commencement, awards were presented to 26 graduating students, 10 faculty, and three staff members.
The measure of a leader
Dr. Hunter—himself a Harvard Chan graduate who earned an MPH in 1985—has served as Acting Dean for a year and will step down at the end of June, when Dr. Michelle Williams, a Stephen B. Kay Family Professor of Public Health and chair of the Department of Epidemiology, becomes Dean. Recalling his own commencement, Dr. Hunter said, “If you had told me then that three decades later, I would address you today as Acting Dean, I would have thought: ‘That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!’”
His point was to underscore the “unpredictable journey” on which the graduates will embark—which might include becoming public health leaders in the U.S. or around the world. He said the students have already shown their leadership qualities by placing a spotlight on issues such as racism, sexism, and discrimination related to disability, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. “You have challenged us to be our better selves, and we are the better for it,” Dr. Hunter said.
He cited examples of two alumni who, while not in prominent positions, exhibited inspirational leadership. One, Dr. Elif Yavuz, , was working as a senior researcher with the Clinton Health Access Initiative’s applied analytics team in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, impressing her colleagues with her expertise and passion. At age 33, Elif was killed in a terrorist attack in Nairobi, where she and her partner—also killed—had traveled to deliver their first child.
“Please know that you will carry the torch for those who are no longer with us—for those who, like Elif, lost their lives as they sought to make the world healthier and safer for poor people around the world,” Dr. Hunter said.
He also spoke about the work of immunologist and epidemiologist Dr. Mosoka Fallah, who, after graduating, fought the raging Ebola epidemic in his native Liberia in some of Monrovia’s poorest and hardest-hit neighborhoods. Dr. Fallah was featured in a front-page story in the New York Times that highlighted his “quiet courage,” Dr. Hunter said.
‘Respect everyone’s dignity equally’
Student speaker Ms. Yu Na, who has worked with underprivileged women and children in her native China, in Thailand, and in the U.S., earned an MPH at Harvard Chan School, focusing on access to quality and affordable health care for marginalized communities. Both before and during her time at Harvard Chan, she worked at Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, where she will continue after graduation.
Ms. Yu Na told of how late one night at work she heard Susanna, the cleaning woman, crying. Susanna’s pregnant daughter had lost her job, and Susanna was concerned that her daughter wouldn’t have medical insurance to deliver the baby safely. She’d heard of Medicaid and Obamacare but didn’t know where or how to apply.
Over the next few weeks, Ms. Yu Na helped Susanna get health coverage for her daughter and her future grandchild. “And one day, she came to my cubicle with a homemade meal, and said in Spanish, ‘Eat! Eat!’” Ms. Yu Na recalled. Susanna’s generosity “touched me deeply,” she said.
“At that moment, I forgot that she is Ecuadorian, and I am Chinese; that she does not speak English well, and I do not understand much Spanish; and that our lives are very different,” Ms. Yu Na said. “Susanna made me realize that serving is not giving a handout, but an opportunity to respect everyone’s dignity equally.”
She said she learned a similar lesson at Harvard Chan School while spending time in Kresge cafeteria—with classmates, faculty members, legislators, policymakers, social workers—discussing how to make good health care available to all, regardless of their circumstances. She called those conversations “the most rewarding part of my experience at the School,” and urged her fellow graduates to “bring Kresge Café to your community” by inviting to the table “not only the decision-makers, but also the voiceless, the silenced, and the underserved, so that you will understand the frustrations of Susanna [and] the barriers to health in your community.”
Boosting public health infrastructure
Introducing commencement speaker Dr. Donna Shalala, Dr. Hunter called her “fair,” “resilient,” and “take-charge,” and praised her efforts to improve the health of communities over the course of her career. Currently President of the Clinton Foundation, Dr. Shalala was previously President of the University of Miami, where she served for 14 years before being succeeded last year by Harvard Chan School’s own former Dean Dr. Julio Frenk. She also served for eight years as U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services under President Clinton; as Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and as President of Hunter College of the City University of New York.
Dr. Shalala outlined some of the significant challenges graduates will face in their careers: researching, understanding, and managing future infectious disease crises; trying to improve the public health infrastructure of every place on earth; and urging wealthy nations to keep their financial commitments to poorer nations.
“These aren’t small tasks,” Dr. Shalala said. She recalled a challenging task of her own: When she began her tenure as U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services under President Clinton in the early 1990s, she was asked to get all the children in the U.S. immunized before they were three years old. At the time, the U.S. ranked just above Haiti on early immunizations in the region.
Dr. Shalala called together a group of public health experts from HHS—the Surgeon General as well as officials from the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health—but they told her the early childhood immunizations couldn’t be done. They said the cost would be too high for young families and that there was no reason to worry about children not getting their shots at such a young age—“even though the science had been very clear” otherwise, Dr. Shalala recalled.
She didn’t want to fail, though. She recalled pulling a postcard out of her purse—a reminder from her veterinarian addressed to her then-Golden Retriever, Bucky, that read, “Time to come in for your next shot.” She showed it to the group of assembled public health experts and said, “‘If the veterinarians in this country can get all the dogs, the cats, the sheep, the goats, and the cows vaccinated on time, we can do it for the children of the United States.’ Well, we did it!”
Responding to tough public health challenges requires “the expertise and input of many people—and of NGOs, governments, and the private sector working together to find the best solutions,” Dr. Shalala said. That is how the Clinton Foundation tackles problems, she said. For example, during the Ebola outbreak, 24 members of the Clinton Global Initiative—representatives from corporations as well as nonprofits—mounted a “truly staggering response” to help contain the epidemic, she said. They helped provide health care and urgently needed medical supplies in cooperation with ministries of health in each affected country and with support from many partners around the world. Dr. Shalala called the effort “an example of public-private partnership at its finest.”
Beyond dealing with global epidemics like Ebola, Dr. Shalala said boosting public health infrastructure around the world is crucial. She told the graduates to “make our case to our citizens much more clearly on why a strong health infrastructure, including the preparation of the next generation of health workers, is so important.”
Dr. M. Rashad Massoud, president-elect of the Harvard Chan School’s Alumni Council, offered greetings to the School’s newest alumni. A physician and public health specialist known for his leadership in global health care improvement, Dr. Massoud is director of the USAID Applying Science to Strengthen and Improve Systems (ASSIST) Project. He is also Senior Vice President of the Quality and Performance Institute at Bethesda-based University Research Co., which provides solutions to health and social challenges worldwide.
Dr. Massoud noted that the graduates are entering the field of public health at a time of new challenges, such as the Ebola outbreak, which “exhausted health systems and strangled countries.” He said the outbreak made clear that health systems must be strengthened and made more resilient to deal with threats from infectious diseases, and that this effort “needs to be part of the broader development agenda of countries across the globe.”
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