Today’s public health challenges are enormous, both domestically and abroad, and they are coupled with an era of political uncertainty that for many raises further concerns.
But on Monday (May 22) as close to 180 highly trained professionals graduated from the Yale School of Public Health, there was a sense of optimism for the future.
The members of the Class of 2017—a combination of M.P.H., Master of Science and Ph.D. students—were urged to use their specialized training, commitment and passion to improve public health outcomes around the world.
Dean Sten Vermund noted that public health is almost unique; there are few avocations that allow greater contributions to the overall public good.
“The great potential of public health is that you can wake up every day and say, “I’m going to make the world a better place,” Vermund said to rousing applause from the family and friends from around the world who crowded into every corner of Yale’s ornate Battell Chapel to watch the ceremony.
Vermund also recognized former Dean Paul Cleary, seated in the front row, who led the school for 10 years before stepping down. Vermund assumed the deanship in February.
Class speaker Susan Choy, and M.P.H. graduate, asked her fellow students to reflect on how the past two years changed their life’s trajectory. She outlined how M.P.H. students, over the course of four semesters, developed the public health voices that they will need as they go forth.
The degrees that they have earned also connect them to world and all of those in need, whether refugees, people without access to basic health care, the poor and uninsured. She called upon her classmates to use their educations to engage, challenge and create new knowledge.
“We have learned how to stand up for public health. Use your voices that you have developed over the past two years,” she said. “Our voices are powerful. Embrace your voice and use it to do good.”
Internationally recognized infectious disease expert Eric Goosby, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, delivered the commencement address. He acknowledged Vermund and his many scientific contributions in the United States and around the world over a career that spans several decades.
“He [Dean Sten Vermund] is really an example of what we should aspire to,” Goosby said.
He also continued with the theme of engagement and the need for the graduating class to use their public health training for the greater good.
“Public health service is an honor,” said Goosby, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2009 to be ambassador at large in the U.S. State Department and the Global AIDS Coordinator.
Goosby touched on his own engagement in the front lines against the exploding AIDS epidemic. In the early years, there were so much death and suffering that many scientists like himself almost developed a posttraumatic stress disorder and had trouble sleeping.
It was through the process of engaging with other researchers and health professionals that they found a source of strength and stopped feeling quite so helpless, and even begin to feel hopeful. They realized that with their collective efforts they might begin to turn the tide against a deadly epidemic.
“We had to travel a long road to get to where we are,” he said. “We could have retreated, but we did not.”
While there have been major medical breakthroughs that today prevent an HIV/AIDS diagnosis from becoming a death sentence; there are still wide disparities in the availability of these life-saving drugs.
Goosby said that universal health care is a comparable issue that the graduates will have to contend with and that will require long-term engagement and commitment.
“My generation started a [public health] response that your generation must complete,” he said.
Four graduates were recognized by Vermund for their outstanding scholarly work. They include:
- The Dean’s Prize for Outstanding M.P.H. Thesis was given to Peter E. Suwondo for his paper, “Epidemiology of Soil-Transmitted Helminthiases in Kpandai District, Ghana: Community-Level Variation and Novel Predictors of Infection Status.”
- The Wilbur G. Downs, M.D., M.P.H. Outstanding Thesis Prize in International Health was awarded to Xinchun Liu for her paper, “Human Disease Network: A Study Based on Taiwan National Health Insurance Research Database.”
- The Henry J. (Sam) Chauncey Jr. Inspiration Award was given to Lisa A. Fulchino.
- The Lowell Levin Award for Excellence in Global Health was given to Katherine M. Rich.
Vermund also recognized the three recipients of awards for educational excellence. They include:
- William Schpero, Ph.D. student, Teaching Fellow Award.
- Danya Keene, Ph.D., assistant professor, Distinguished Student Mentoring Award.
- Shelley Geballe, J.D., M.P.H., assistant clinical professor of public health, Award for Excellence in Teaching.
The graduating M.P.H., Ph.D. and M.Sc. students will join the ranks of some 5,000 School of Public Health alumni who work and live in more than 70 countries around the world.