‘Even If Your Voice Is the Only Voice—Use It’
At the 2021 Convocation, Cheryl Scott urged graduates to defend equitable practices and embrace humanity as they begin the next stage of their public health journey.
On Saturday, May 15, the School of Public Health celebrated the academic achievements of 280 graduates at the 2021 SPH Convocation. Held virtually on Zoom for the second year, the event’s format reflected the prolonged impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the spirit of the program embraced a collective commitment to community, equity, justice, and humanity.
Convocation speaker Cheryl Scott (MED’82) urged the graduates to “make sure that your humanity remains at the core of your being and the center of your public health service.
“As public health professionals, you will be forced to make difficult decisions and to see the world not as it is, but as it should be,” said Scott. “And you will fight for that dream, making it real through science, data, skill, and compassion. You will bring humanity to a world that sometimes forgets about people and you will help to make communities whole.”
As a medical epidemiologist and consultant trained in preventive medicine, health systems strengthening, and domestic and international disaster relief, Scott has been making communities whole through an equitable framework for almost 40 years.
A graduate of the School of Medicine and current member of the SPH Dean’s Advisory Board, Scott served for 20 years as a medical officer in the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (PHS) assigned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She has held senior health roles in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa, addressing public health issues such as maternal mortality, HIV, tuberculosis, and racism. For much of the past year, she has helped coordinate the COVID-19 response for the Community Health Services Bureau of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
During Convocation, Scott shared lessons she has learned in throughout her career, and she centered her words around a call for equity and justice amid a global public health crisis that continues to disproportionately impact underserved populations.
Among those lessons is that “health equity cannot be an aspiration, it must be built into public health policy,” she said. “And as we have all learned, politics should have no role in planning or delivering public health services for any populations, especially when residents are dying by the minutes.
“Have the courage to keep that foremost so you can both safeguard and defend equitable practices and adherence to science,” Scott said. “Even if your voice is the only voice, use it—believe me that it matters.”
Health inequities exist everywhere, she said—certainly with the COVID crisis, as well as police brutality, gun violence, infant mortality, and unequal access to healthcare.
Scott closed by urging graduates to begin their work “with the consciousness of how precious and sometimes fragile many of the communities are that you will serve. Your commitment to public health and the greater good will not only return communities to a level of self-determination, it can also literally save the world.”
Cheyenne Bailey, the 2021 student speaker, also invoked the importance of community support in her address to graduates. An ardent advocate for chronically ill people struggling to navigate the US healthcare system, the Brooklyn native immersed herself in community advocacy work while completing the CAPDIE certificate at SPH. She studied the burdens of patients with traumatic brain injuries, advocated for the needs of public housing residents, and worked with fellow SPH and BU researchers on antiracist research. During her speech, Bailey emphasized the influence of grandmother, who was born in Belize, on her understanding of community.
“My grandmother’s story is of an immigrant’s perseverance,” Bailey said, noting her grandmother’s nature to always provide resources to others. “My grandma lent a listening ear, spending quality time hearing the frustrations, misfortunes, and joys that others were facing within their lives. My grandma embodied the true spirit of community.”
Bailey called on graduates to remember the “value of working within and among communities,” no matter which sectors they pursue.
“Every single one of us was drawn to this degree because, in some way, we have the word ‘community’ within our hearts,” Bailey said. “We all care about something—some group, somebody, some community. Now you and I must do the important work of continuing to learn and grow so that we can work effectively with the communities with which we are concerned.”
She also asked graduates to challenge oppressive systems such as racism, classism, and ableism. “The world is our community, and there is much to be done,” Bailey said.
After each degree was awarded—including a moment of the times, in which viewers watched family and friends drape graduation hoods on doctoral students—alumni speaker Elizabeth Sommers (SPH’89) encouraged the graduates to “Think. Teach. Do. Repeat.”
“These words become a mantra that is part of the legacy of BUSPH that you will take with you as you begin your next chapter,” said Sommers, a senior acupuncturist and researcher in the Integrative Medicine and Health Disparities Program of Boston Medical Center. “These words remind us of the ongoing process of reflection, mental digestion and the transformation of our creativity into action that seeks to promote health justice for all.”
As the world inches closer to a post-COVID reality, Dean Sandro Galea urged graduates not to forget the details of the past year, and to apply the lessons of COVID to the creation of a healthier world.
“The story of COVID has been from the start a story of inequality”—one which “unfolded in a society already dealing with many health threats,” Galea said. “The passing of the virus will not return us to some golden age of health. Instead, it will return us to a country where there is still much to be done to improve health.”
Preventing the next pandemic means creating effective vaccines and treatments, he said, “but, more centrally, it means tackling inequality, ending racism, investing in public health infrastructure, and creating a just society. We are proud that you, our soon-to-be graduates, have chosen to dedicate yourselves to this work.”
Saturday’s ceremony also celebrated the accomplishments of other members of the SPH community. Two faculty members were honored for teaching and scholarship: Monica Onyango, clinical associate professor of global health, received the Norman A. Scotch Award for Excellence in Teaching, and Roberta White, professor of epidemiology, received the Faculty Award in Research and Scholarship.
Student Hiba Abousleiman received the Leonard H. Glantz Award for Academic Excellence.
Monica Wang, associate professor of community health sciences, received the Award for Excellence in Practice, and Patricia Gonzalez, director of administration for the Department of Community Health Sciences, and interim director of administration for the Department of Global Health, received the Dzidra J. Knecht Staff Award for Distinguished Service.
A separate SPH Awards Ceremony on May 14 featured the presentation of additional awards for outstanding contributions and achievements to the SPH community.
The award recipients are:
Excellence in Student Services & Leadership Award: Gray Babbs and Bilqis Williams
Student Award for Excellence in Public Health Practice: Gray Babbs
Gail Douglas Award: Mo Barbosa
Eugene Declercq Award for Excellence in a Public Health Practice Dissertation: Julie Mottl-Santiago
Community Health Sciences “Rising Star” Award: Dani Brooks
Restuccia Award for Achievement in Social Justice in Community Health: Cheyenne Bailey
James F. Burgess Award for the Best Student Paper in Health Services Research: Melissa Davoust
Katherine M. Skinner Memorial Prize for Commitment to the Study of Women’s Health Issues: Jade Ransohoff and Sugy Choi
Allan R. Meyers Memorial Award for Excellence in Health Policy & Management: Senila Yasmin and Margret Frodin
Dr. William B. Patterson Memorial Prize for Excellence in Environmental and Occupational Health: Caredwen Foley
Dr. Theodore Colton Prize for Excellence in Epidemiology: Leona Ofei and Nicholas Griffiths
Epidemiology Academic Excellence Award: Charlotte Doran and Maura Dodge
Center for Health Law, Ethics and Human Rights: Kate Conquest and Steven Callori
The John Snow, Inc. Award in Global Health: Kate Garrison
Herb Kayne Prize for Excellence in Biostatistics: Bala Niharika Pillalamarri
Biostatistics Academic Excellence Award: Amanda Ignacio
Biostatistics Excellence in Research Award: Xiaojing Peng and Morgan Ryan
Biostatistics Doctoral Applied Research Paper Award: Sarah C. Conner