‘Please Remember the Ways in which Your Work Literally Saves Lives Every Day’.
‘Please Remember the Ways in which Your Work Literally Saves Lives Every Day’
At the 2023 SPH Convocation, Admiral Rachel Levine urged graduates to have patience and persistence, expect the unexpected, and stay mindful of their own health as they work to improve the health of others.
On Saturday, May 20, 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 this 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 urged graduates to embrace unexpected opportunities and challenges that may arise in their careers.
“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, assistant secretary for health. “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 much of 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, while most of her Harvard University 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 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.
“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 health 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.”
To the hundreds of women who die during childbirth in Africa: that is my why.
Student speaker Daphne Nakawesi urged graduates not to lose sight 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 recalled how she and her family immigrated to the US from Kampala, Uganda a few years ago with just $5, and she credits her family for supporting her personal and academic progress in the US. In addition to cofounding the Global Health Students Organization, Nakawesi 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.”
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 I have 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.”
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 11,000 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.”
Dean 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, imparted sage advice: 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, received the Norman A. Scotch Award for Excellence in Teaching, and Patrick Kinney, Beverly A. Brown Professor of Urban Health, received the Faculty Award for Excellence in Research and Scholarship.
Student Tomeka Frieson, an MPH graduate, received the Leonard H. Glantz Award for Academic Excellence.
Jacey Greece, clinical associate professor of community health sciences, received the Award for Excellence in Public Health Practice, and Michael Saunders, director of editorial content in Marketing & Communications, 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. The award recipients are:
Excellence in Student Services & Leadership Award:
Student Award for Excellence in Public Health Practice:
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Student Award:
Anisa Katelyn Khadraoui
Eugene Declercq Award for Excellence in a Public Health Practice Dissertation:
Ann Peralta and Shaffi Fazaludeen Koya
Community Health Sciences “Rising Star” Award:
Restuccia Award for Achievement in Social Justice in Community Health:
James F. Burgess Award for the Best Student Paper in Health Services Research:
Samantha Auty and Trina Johnson
Katherine M. Skinner Memorial Prize for Commitment to the Study of Women’s Health:
Allan R. Meyers Memorial Award for Excellence in Health Policy & Management:
Cynthia Baker and Nidhi Bandrapalli
Dr. William B. Patterson Memorial Prize for Excellence in Environmental and Occupational Health:
Dr. Theodore Colton Prize for Excellence in Epidemiology:
Epidemiology Academic Excellence Award:
Center for Health Law, Ethics and Human Rights Award:
Rachel Martin and Liz Petit
The John Snow, Inc. Award in Global Health:
Herb Kayne Prize for Excellence in Biostatistics:
Patricia Mello Ferrao
Biostatistics Academic Excellence Award:
Biostatistics Excellence in Research Award:
Biostatistics Doctoral Applied Research Paper Award:
Educational Innovation/McCahan Day:
Excellence in Teaching Award for Teaching in the Core:
Excellence in Teaching Award for Student Engagement:
Excellence in Teaching Award for Dedication to Student Learning:
Excellence in Teaching Award Outstanding New Instructor:
Excellence in Research Early Career Award:
Excellence in Research Innovation Award:
Excellence in Research Mentoring Award:
Staff Excellence Award in Collaboration:
Staff Excellence Award in Mentorship or Training:
Staff Excellence Award in Leadership:
The Karen Smith Award:
Gail Douglas Award:
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