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State Health and Human Services Secretary SPH Convocation Speaker

Alum Marylou Sudders urges graduates: “Search for the positive”

Speaking to the 281 School of Public Health graduates at the school’s Convocation Saturday at Agganis Arena, Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders stressed the need for compassion in caring for the commonwealth’s neediest residents.

“We must never forget that behind every dollar and statistic is a very real person,” she told the graduates and guests.

Appointed by Governor Charlie Baker in January 2015, Sudders (CAS’76, SSW’78) leads the largest executive agency in state government—with a $19.4 billion budget and 22,000 public servants—and oversees critical services that touch one in four Massachusetts residents.

Despite that large budget, she said, tremendous health care challenges remain: “I am humbled that not even with $19 billion is every child safe from harm, that four people die every day in this great commonwealth from an opioid overdose, that there are profound disparities in health and educational outcomes depending on one’s zip code.”

Sudders said her 15 months as secretary have been dominated by the need to make Medicaid sustainable in Massachusetts. Medicaid is the largest component of the state budget, accounting for 40 percent of spending, she said, and it has reached a point of “crowding out all the other things that we know are so important to health in our communities: social services, housing, mitigation of homelessness.”

Acknowledging that the audience she was addressing understood the complexity of keeping people healthy, she said that “coverage is only part of the equation. Coverage doesn’t necessary translate into accessibility or affordability. Individuals who are Hispanic, for example, represent 10 percent of the Massachusetts population, and yet account for 20 percent of the commonwealth’s uninsured. When we look closer at health-care status by zip codes, there are glaring disparities.

“Zip codes must not be a predictor of a person’s health status. We must make a pledge in this commonwealth to eliminate health disparities. We can do it here. This is not just government’s responsibility. It is our collective responsibility. It is our collective public health responsibility.”

Sudders also emphasized the need for compassion. “Words matter,” she said. “They can be embracing or stigmatizing. I urge caution when you describe populations. Nothing can be truer when we think of addictions. What are the images that come to mind when we say, addict, junkie?”

She spoke about her own family’s experience with stigmatizing language. “I have three generations of family with serious mental illness,” she said, “and it was completely devastating the day my niece with schizoaffective illness was described in a waiting room as ‘the schizoaffective down the hall.’”

Trained as a social worker at BU’s School of Social Work, Sudders was Massachusetts commissioner of mental health from 1996 to 2003, overseeing the creation of the first children’s mental health commission. “Our collective commitment to health promotion, to disease prevention, must also include the promotion of mental health,” she said. “I applaud this School of Public Health for its commitment to mental health.”

Perspective, she added, is as important as language. “Be positive or search for the positive,” she said. “I used to caution my social work students…to find strengths or positives to build from. Every community has a strength if you search. It may be tiny, but it offers hope.”

Further, she said, “public service needs you. If not now, perhaps later. Public service is a privilege; it’s about channeling your advocacy into shaping good public policy and programs. Your graduate education provides a strong platform for public service. Think about it.”

No matter their avenue or approach, she urged the graduates to “have passion for your field of interest, compassion for the individuals and communities that you are privileged to work with, and commitment to a healthier society locally and globally.”

For almost 10 years, Sudders headed the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In 2012, she was appointed behavioral health expert to the commonwealth’s Health Policy Commission. Prior to being appointed to her current post, Sudders was a Boston College Graduate School of Social Work associate professor and chair of health and mental health.

In the video above, watch Faiz Kidwai (SPH’16) give the student address at the 2016 School of Public Health Convocation. Photo by Michael Paydos

SPH student speaker Faiz Kidwai (SPH’16) stressed the necessity for “radical compassion” as graduates start their careers.

Kidwai said his family “became poor overnight” when they emigrated from Pakistan when he was 16. They didn’t have health insurance and lived in subsidized housing. “We were poor, but not that poor,” he said, “and I wish I could say the same thing for the people who I met at the homeless shelters, emergency rooms, and free health clinics where I volunteered during high school and college. Whatever little privilege I had hit me like a ton of bricks, and I realized that the only reason I sat on this side of the table was due to nothing more than good fortune.”

He urged his fellow graduates to always be aware of their own privilege as they combat the inequalities at the root of such health issues as obesity and addiction. “At SPH we have learned about the origins and epidemiology of viruses like Zika and Ebola,” he said, “but perhaps more important, we have learned the origins and epidemiology of injustice, racism, sexism, and oppression.” The centrality of these issues, Kidwai said, makes public health “a moral enterprise.”

During Saturday’s ceremony, two faculty members were honored for teaching and scholarship. Gouri Gupte, an SPH assistant professor of health law, policy, and management, received the Norman A. Scotch Award for Excellence in Teaching, awarded annually for outstanding and sustained contribution to the education program. Jonathan Levy, an SPH professor of environmental health, received the Faculty Career Award in Research and Scholarship.

Sandro Galea, SPH dean and Robert A. Knox Professor, also congratulated Christopher Gill, an SPH associate professor of global health and a research scientist at BU’s Center for Global Health & Development, winner of the University’s highest teaching honor, the Metcalf Cup and Prize, which was given at the main Commencement ceremony May 15.

Jennifer Masdea (SPH’16) was awarded the Leonard H. Glantz Award for Academic Excellence, and Amparo “Chary” Ortiz, biostatistics department financial administrator, received the Dzidra J. Knecht Staff Award for Distinguished Service.

Michelle Samuels can be reached at msamu@bu.edu.

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