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“Never Succumb to the Culture of No”

AIDS activist Wafaa El-Sadr gives Baccalaureate address

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In the video above, AIDS activist, physician, and researcher Wafaa El-Sadr told her audience at the University’s Baccalaureate service that when she graduated from Cairo University, little did she know that the challenges to come would not be a sprint, but a marathon. Photo by Matt Kalinowski

Wafaa El-Sadr, AIDS activist, physician, and researcher, was dismissed by critics years ago when she proposed treating AIDS sufferers in Africa. They said the treatment was too expensive and difficult and that there weren’t enough trained health care workers to reach the sick. At that time, wealthy countries treated their own who had HIV or AIDS, but millions in poorer nations weren’t as fortunate.

She was determined to prove the doubters wrong, said El-Sadr, director of the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs, of the Center for Infectious Disease Epidemiologic Research, and of the Global Health Initiative, all of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“Rather than encountering a world that encourages you to dream big, you may find yourself mired in a ‘culture of no’ — one where fear of failure means that great ideas don’t even get a try,” the 59-year-old professor of medicine and epidemiology told the audience at Boston University’s Baccalaureate service on Commencement morning in Marsh Chapel. “You will have to decide, sometimes on a daily basis, whether to listen to the naysayers, and when instead to believe in your own vision and have the fortitude to push forward.”

The infectious disease specialist and leading AIDS researcher told Baccalaureate celebrants that the HIV/AIDS epidemic has defined her professional life.

El-Sadr’s work has provided lifesaving treatment to almost a million individuals in sub-Saharan Africa and has led to the creation of a comprehensive HIV treatment program at New York City’s Harlem Hospital Center. In 2008, she was named a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellow, also known as the Genius Award, for her creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions for the future.

The Baccalaureate ceremony began with an organ and brass prelude, followed by a greeting and prayer by the Reverend Robert Allan Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel. University Provost David Campbell read from the Wisdom of Solomon, and President Robert A. Brown read from the Gospel of Matthew.

El-Sadr began by reminiscing about her own graduation, from Cairo University. She recalled not being able to wait for the ceremony to end.

“Little did I know that memories of those wonderful student times would stay with me for years and years,” she said. “Little did I know how those formative years in Egypt would shape my approach to the challenges to come. And little did I know that this would not be a sprint, but a marathon.”

Prior to working at the Mailman School, El-Sadr served for two decades as chief of the division of infectious diseases at Harlem Hospital Center, where she was instrumental in developing an internationally recognized HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis program focused on treatment, training, and research.

“The word ‘misguided’ was often used to describe the plans that I and my colleagues began to propose and work on,” she said. “Yet, it was simply wrong to deprive people of something that could prevent or alleviate their suffering.”

Their work is far from over. Currently about 33 million people around the world live with HIV/AIDS, El-Sadr said. In the United States, one million people have AIDS, about twice the population of Boston. Don’t be overwhelmed by these statistics, she urged — be inspired to fight for a cure.

In people with HIV/AIDS, “you are likely to witness deep knowledge, great pride, leadership, wisdom, and a commitment to serve others,” she said. “In the voices and the stories of the peer workers, you will hear the sound of triumph over adversity, of determination, and of commitment. For all the nos we heard in the past, all you have to do is meet one of these individuals to realize what is possible.”

In conclusion, El-Sadr told Baccalaureate celebrants that no matter where their work brings them, “never succumb to the culture of no. Believe in your own wisdom and have the personal strength to push forward with your own ideas. You will make a difference!”

Commencement 2010 news coverage can be found here.

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @amlaskow.

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