Dear Colleagues,

Except for one time when I worked as a cook for three weeks, I have loved every job that I have ever had. Early in my career, I worked as a social worker with individuals with developmental disabilities. Then I worked with people with HIV/AIDS. After this, I worked for 10 years as the Chief Public Health Officer for the city of Cambridge. And for the past 14 years, I have worked at the BU School of Public Health, and have seen thousands of students graduate with advanced degrees. Each of these opportunities has been spectacular and taught me something important about living.

As I prepare to step down as Associate Dean for Public Health Practice, it’s a good time to reflect on what I have learned over my career.

Lesson 1: Listen 

During Mackenzie Bullard’s (SPH ’19) first class at BUSPH, he told me that the problem with the world is (…wait for it)… old people. I was stunned. I had to dig deep to find the right response since I am a person of a “certain age.” Over time, I continued to listen and I learned that Mackenzie, like so many of my students, is thoughtful, caring, and self-reflective.  Through many years of caring for people and organizations, I have learned that the most important life lesson is to listen fully to what people are saying. I admit that I thought I knew what was best, and if people just listened to me, I could point them in the right direction. How ridiculous and wrong. The best way to be supportive and facilitate change is to shut up and listen. 

Lesson 2: Timing Is Everything 

I have been fortunate to have jobs about which I felt a strong passion. I discovered that if I really believe what I am doing, I will do a good job. If I don’t like the work or don’t feel any strong connection to it, then I am pretty bad at it, like when I had a job as a cook. I was really bad at that job and made goofy mistakes (too stupid to tell here). The best thing for me (and anybody that had to eat my food) was to leave. On the other hand, when I worked as the Director of Client Services at AIDS Action Committee, I looked forward to going to work every day to serve the needs of our clients.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time as an associate dean. Now is the right time to step away and experience new challenges. It is the perfect time to bring in new leadership.  I am so happy to welcome Dr. Craig Andrade as the new associate dean. He is uniquely qualified to take the Activist Lab to the next level.

The life lesson is knowing when to start a job and, just as important, when to leave. 

Lesson 3: Go with the Flow 

I am not perfect. I have made mistakes. Lots of them (OK… not that many). Years ago, I started working on a doctorate degree at Brandeis University’s Heller School. I was excited about being in the program and looked forward to the career advancements I would make with the degree. The problem was that I was more excited about what the degree would offer than what I had to do to earn it. Plus, I had a truly bad case of imposter syndrome. I didn’t believe that I actually belonged there. I never finished the degree and I hated myself for years. I kept saying that I would go back and finish the work but never did. Finally, I got tired of punishing myself and I realized that I needed to get on with my life.

The lesson here is recognizing that sometimes the plan changes, and that’s ok. Frankly, I have accomplished a lot without a doctorate. I chuckle when people make the assumption and call me Dr. Cox. I never correct them.

I am a gay, black, old guy from Texas. I am also smart, articulate, funny (sometimes), and a super friend. I am complicated in so many ways, but I’ve learned to never take myself too seriously. One of my favorite poems ends: “Learn not to sweat the small stuff. It is all small stuff.” Enough said.

Lesson 4: Play!

It is important to work hard, and equally important to play hard because there is more to life than working. My favorite summer pastime is to go to Minnesota and go on two weeks of solo canoeing and camping. I go skydiving once a year. I have gone dog sledding and slept outdoors for one week in 30-below weather. I used to rock climb and take long-distance cycling trips. I can knit. I’ve spent time in South America learning Spanish. And lately, I have been honing my storytelling chops. The point of all this is to work hard and play harder.

Lesson 5: Gratitude 

I have loved being the Associate Dean for Public Health Practice. I have learned a lot. I have put my stamp on a few things here at BUSPH. I have met some fascinating and terrific people and I’d like to give special shout outs to Dean Galea, the terrific Activist Lab staff and faculty, and every one of my dynamic students.  I am not going far. You can still find me in the Crosstown Building, where I’ll be an active member of the Community Health Sciences department. I’ll continue to look for new work and play opportunities. And I’ll keep discovering more of life’s lessons. 

For all of this, I am grateful. So very, very grateful.


Harold Cox, MSSW
Associate Professor of Community Health Sciences

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