Speaking to the 312 School of Public Health graduates at Boston University Track and Tennis Center on Saturday, May 19, Convocation speaker 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.
DeSalvo is the former acting assistant secretary for health and national coordinator for health information technology at the US 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,” 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.”
New Orleans built a better healthcare system than the one it had before the hurricane, DeSalvo said, “the best we could build,” but it wasn’t enough.
“Our patients left us and went home, often to neighborhoods that were unsafe, to houses that were contaminated with mold,” she said. “Their jobs didn’t pay them a living wage. Their buses didn’t show up in their neighborhood, which caused them to be late for work. They wanted to eat healthy, to follow the right diet, but they didn’t have access to healthy affordable food in their neighborhoods.”
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, DeSalvo recalled “barely scraping by,” living in an unsafe neighborhood and going to a chronically underfunded school. The summer before sixth grade, her mother found a way to move the family just six miles across town, to a safer neighborhood with green space and a school with coursework that finally challenged DeSalvo, and classmates who were planning to go to college.
“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, 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. “This is a big challenge,” she said, “but it will not be solved by one sector.”
DeSalvo 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 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. Addressing racism, classism, and other forms of structural oppression that affect health can be difficult, Dainkeh said, but it was also central to the Class of 2018’s education.
“Discomfort did not stop you from doing the work,” she said. “It did not stop you from starting a conversation or joining a conversation. It did not stop you from taking action to dismantle oppressive structures.”
Dainkeh, who grew up in a low-income neighborhood as black, Muslim, and a child of immigrants, urged her fellow graduates to remember that these conversations were not just theoretical in the classroom, and will not be theoretical when they go out into the world as 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.”
She encouraged graduates to speak up when they see injustice at the institutions where they will work. “The systems of oppression that infiltrate our institutions can be dismantled,” she said. “There is power in numbers. When people show up, get together, and strategize, change can be made.
“The people who are ripe to lead the movement are us.”
STUDENT SPEAKER FATIMA DAINKEH
ALUMNI SPEAKER BARBARA BUELL
During Saturday’s ceremony, two faculty members were honored for teaching and scholarship. Yvette C. Cozier (SPH’94, ’04), 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. Paola Sebastiani, professor of biostatistics, received the Faculty Career Award in Research and Scholarship.
Sandro Galea, dean and Robert A. Knox Professor, also congratulated 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 BU Commencement ceremony on May 20.
Student Erin M. Ashe was awarded the Leonard H. Glantz Award for Academic Excellence. Anna McKay, website and design manager in the Office of Communications, and Andrea Tingue (SPH’13), graduate program administrator in the Department of Health Law, Policy & Management, received the Dzidra J. Knecht Staff Award for Distinguished Service.
At a separate ceremony on May 18, SPH recognized students for their outstanding contributions and achievements at a student awards ceremony. The student awardees were:
- Abigail Jooae Kim: Award for Student Excellence in Public Health Practice
- Danielle M. Rayman: Rex Fendall Award for Excellence in Public Health Writing
- Breanna Chachere: Katherine M. Skinner Memorial Prize for Commitment to the Study of Women’s Health Issues
- Jennifer Lynn Conti and Aldina Mesic: Community Health Sciences “Rising Star” Award
- Penglong Wang: Herb Kayne Prize for Excellence in Biostatistics
- Maria Camila Bustos Marquez: John Snow Award in Global Health
- Maria Camila Bustos Marquez, Kimberly A. Simmons, and Anna Elizabeth Ulrich: Allan R. Meyers Memorial Prize for Excellence in Health Services
- Brian Roger Charest: Dr. Theodore Colton Prize for Excellence in Epidemiology
- Caryn Marie Sennett: Dr. William B. Patterson Memorial Prize for Excellence in Environmental & Occupational Health