“Embrace the Unexpected” Admiral Rachel Levine Urges School of Public Health Grads

Photo: Sandro Galea (right) dean of the School of Public Health and Robert A. Knox Professor, applauds Admiral Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health at the US Department of Health and Human Services. They stand on a enclosed stage--the dean in their ceremonial clothes and the admiral in their ceremonial outfit. Professors are sat in a line one the stage with multiple flags behind them. In the far right corner, there is a giant jumbotron.

Sandro Galea (right) dean of the School of Public Health and Robert A. Knox Professor, applauds Admiral Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health at the US Department of Health and Human Services, who urged graduates to embrace the unexpected in their careers during her keynote speech at SPH’s Convocation, May 20.

Commencement 2023

“Embrace the Unexpected” Admiral Rachel Levine Urges School of Public Health Grads

Assistant secretary for health gave keynote at Convocation to the largest graduating class in the school’s history

May 21, 2023
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On Saturday the School of Public Health community, families, and friends gathered at the Boston University Track & Tennis Center to celebrate the achievements of the largest graduating class in the school’s history at the 2023 SPH Convocation.

At this pivotal time in their lives and in the field of public health, nearly 500 graduates welcomed the moment with eagerness, optimism, determination, and unity as they take their next professional steps towards creating a society that prioritizes health equity and social justice.

Convocation keynote speaker Admiral Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health in the US Department of Health and Human Services, urged graduates to embrace unexpected opportunities and challenges that may arise in their careers.

In the video above, Admiral Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health in the US Department of Health & Human Services, delivers the keynote address at the 2023 School of Public Health Convocation, May 20.

“As you depart BU, you should know that life may take you on many different turns and send you on many unexpected paths,” said Levine. “I am confident that your education here will prepare you for the expected and the unexpected roads.”

Seizing unforeseen opportunities is how the Wakefield, Mass., native advanced through her career, which has spanned medicine, public health, and government. A steadfast advocate for health equity and greater access to care, Levine said she made the “unimaginable” choice to pursue a medical degree at Tulane School of Medicine in Louisiana after graduating from Harvard University while most of her classmates stayed north to study business or law. She practiced pediatric and adolescent medicine in New York City and in Pennsylvania before transitioning to government with an offer in 2015 from then-Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (Democrat) to become the physician general, and then secretary of health, for the Commonwealth.

The ultimate surprise was a 2021 text from the Biden administration asking Levine if she would like to serve as the assistant secretary of health.

Photo: A crowd of graduates sit as they are honored for their time and wait to cross the stage. They are in their ceremonial cap and gown.
Nearly 500 students graduated from the School of Public Health this year, the largest graduating class in the school’s history.

“Leaving academic medicine to join government service may have been the most unexpected thing that I have ever done…Now I stand before you in a position I never imagined I would hold. It is truly the honor of my life,” said Levine, who also oversees the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and holds the rank of admiral. “I wake up every day with the mission of helping people, and this role lets me help people across our nation by helping set public health policy.

“On the days that you get frustrated with our public health system—and there might be a few—please remember the ways in which your work improves people’s lives and literally saves lives every day,” she said.

Levine implored graduates to prioritize their own physical and mental and the health of their families as they strive to improve the health of the broader public.

“Realize when you need a break, and when you are giving too much of yourself,” she said. Furthermore, “COVID-19 and the challenges of the past three years have reminded us of a fundamental truth: that we truly need each other. That our happiness and our very survival depend on our connection to one another and to our community.”

Student speaker Daphne Nakawesi (SPH’23) urged graduates not to lose sight of this sense of community and purpose in their professional journeys.

“Never forget your ‘why,’” said Nakawesi, an immigrant and first-generation graduate. “Your ‘why’ is the thing that keeps you up at night, and even if you wanted to quit when it got hard, you just couldn’t because quitting was never an option.”

Nakawesi made global health a central focus during her time in the MPH program. She and her family moved to the US from her hometown of Kampala, Uganda, a few years ago with just five dollars, and she credits her family with supporting her personal and academic progress in the US. In addition to co-founding the Global Health Students Organization, she worked as the sustainable development goals chair at the United Nations Association of Greater Boston and hosted an annual medical camp in Uganda.

“To the hundreds of women who die during childbirth in Africa: that is my why. To the children we grew up with who were orphaned by HIV/AIDs at a young age: that is my why, she told the assembled crowd.

At SPH, Nakawesi found invaluable mentors and a community to help her navigate lingering questions about her career and purpose along the way.

“There is an African proverb that states that it takes a village to raise a child…My village of giants got me here,” Nakawesi said. “One of the questions I get asked most often is, ‘How have I been able to do it all?’ The truth is, I have not. I found my village of people who carried me and did not allow me to slack.

“So if you have never benefited from having a mentor, then you, my friend, have a responsibility to the next generation of leaders to help change that narrative you never had.”

Photo: The student speaker, Daphne Nakawesi, a Black woman, addresses the crowd in her ceremonial cap and gown.
Student Convocation Speaker Daphne Nakawesi (SPH’23) encouraged her fellow graduates to seek mentorship and guidance as they navigate their careers.

After each student received their degree, alumni speaker Sonja Tong (SPH’05), executive director and chief of staff for Regulatory Affairs, Patient Safety, Quality, and Medical Affairs at Gilead Sciences, encouraged the new graduates—who now join a worldwide network of more than 10,000 alums—to stay connected to SPH.

“Education is an investment in yourself,” Tong said. “Even living 3,000 miles away from Boston, I feel more connected these days as I’ve used the alumni network to meet others in my industry and even within my own company. Whatever way you choose to stay connected, please do get involved and give back.”

SPH dean and Robert A. Knox Professor Sandro Galea reminded students that health is not an end; rather a means to an end.

“We should take care that our efforts to support health never undermine what health is fundamentally for,” Galea said. “We want everyone to be healthy because we want everyone to live happy, meaningful lives. Which is exactly what we wish for you, as you take your next steps.”

Craig Andrade, associate dean for practice and director of the Activist Lab at SPH, urged the graduates to “practice the art and science of public health with head and heart in equal measure. When you need help, ask. Your SPH family will always be here for you.”

Saturday’s ceremony also celebrated the accomplishments of other members of the SPH community. Two faculty members were honored for teaching and scholarship: Jacqueline Hicks, clinical associate professor of biostatistics at SPH, received the Norman A. Scotch Award for Excellence in Teaching, and Patrick Kinney, Beverly A. Brown Professor of Urban Health at SPH, received the Faculty Award for Excellence in Research and Scholarship.

Tomeka Frieson (SPH’23), an MPH recipient, received the Leonard H. Glantz Award for Academic Excellence.

Jacey Greece, clinical associate professor of community health sciences at SPH, received the Award for Excellence in Public Health Practice, and Michael Saunders, director of editorial content in Marketing & Communications at SPH, received the Dzidra J. Knecht Staff Award for Distinguished Service.

A separate SPH Awards Ceremony on May 19 featured the presentation of additional awards for outstanding contributions and achievements to the SPH community.

Find more information about Commencement here

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“Embrace the Unexpected” Admiral Rachel Levine Urges School of Public Health Grads

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