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Public health graduates urged to “soldier on” at 2023 Commencement

May 22, 2023
by Colin Poitras

New York Times reporter praises students’ commitment in the face of daunting challenges, calls public health “rewarding and essential”

Award-winning New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli praised graduates of the Yale School of Public Health for their courage and commitment Monday during her keynote Commencement address at Woolsey Hall.

A health and science writer for the Times, Mandavilli was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. She reminded graduates that they are stepping forth into a nation deeply divided in its trust and respect for public health.

At least 30 U.S. states have moved to limit public health officials’ authority, she said. And in a recent U.S. poll, only 55% of people surveyed said they would trust public health institutions to handle a future pandemic. More than a third said they didn’t trust public health officials at all.

“Instead of learning from the pandemic, it sometimes feels like we have regressed a few steps,” she said somberly.

Divisions were also recorded across geographical and political lines. While people in the suburbs and urban areas expressed faith in public health, only about one in five rural residents shared the same belief, she said. More than half of Republicans responding to the poll said they don’t trust public health institutions, compared with 11% of Democrats.

Mandavilli said public health and journalism share similar struggles. Both are being challenged of late by widespread public distrust, a thinning workforce, lack of funding, and little appreciation for their contributions to society.

Yet she urged the Yale students to be resolute and not to fade in the face of such daunting circumstances.

“This -- exactly a time like this -- is when it becomes even more important for both our communities, journalists and public health professionals, to soldier on…” Mandavilli said.

Winning back the trust of those who have become angry and suspicious may be the students’ biggest challenge, she said. Transparency and truth will be key. She noted how public health officials’ reluctance to discuss the possible side effects of some COVID-19 vaccines early on caused an eventual backlash in trust as anti-vaxxers seized on the inconsistencies in an attempt to undermine national vaccination campaigns.

“At the New York Times, we pledge to deliver the news, ‘without fear or favor,’” she said. “I would urge you all to do the same. Tell the public the truth, the whole truth -- even if you worry that some of it will be misused by some people. Because if you don’t tell the whole truth, if you leave some things unsaid, it leaves room for others to swoop in …with misinformation.”

As a writer who has seen first-hand the enormous struggles public health experts endure, Mandavilli said she was in awe that the YSPH students had chosen careers in public health.

“I know some of what I’ve just said seems bleak. But I also feel hopeful,” she said. “Look at what’s happening right here today, with all of you, hundreds of incredibly smart and passionate people, getting ready to go out there and make a difference… you have the opportunity to help rebuild trust and prepare us for the future.

“Of course, the work ahead of you will not be easy,” she continued. “I’ve gathered from the hundreds of experts I’ve talked to over the years that it is hard, intense, and often thankless. But it is also rewarding, and essential. This country and this world need you -- your intelligence, your compassion, and your dedication to public service. In my experience, public health people are among the most driven to help others and to make the world a better place. I am thrilled to welcome you to their ranks."

Interim Dean Melinda Pettigrew echoed Mandavilli’s characterization of the current state of public health, telling graduates they are entering the workforce at a time of “unprecedented public health challenges.” And yet she said, “Numerous challenges also mean numerous opportunities, and there is no greater time to be in the field of public health than the present.”

She provided graduates with the following words of advice and inspiration:

“As you move forward in your careers keep your minds and hearts open. Take risks. Engage and listen. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of others. Work to improve social cohesion and address loneliness that has become increasingly prevalent. Find joy and look for the positive and the light, which exists even in the most underserved communities. Advocate and be activists. Innovate and affect change.”

You can watch a complete recording of the Yale School of Public Health’s 2023 Commencement here.

The Class of 2023 was comprised of 527 students. Of the total, 360 earned master’s degrees in public health representing the fields of biostatistics, chronic disease epidemiology, environmental health sciences, epidemiology of microbial diseases, health care management, health policy, and social and behavioral sciences; 31 earned degrees from the Advanced Professional MPH program; and 17 students were awarded joint degrees in such fields as nursing, medicine, management, and the environment. In a separate ceremony at the Yale Graduate School Commencement, 16 students received doctoral degrees and 66 students received Master of Science degrees.

Inaugural EMPH graduates

This year’s commencement also marked the first time graduates of YSPH’s new Executive Master of Public Health program were recognized. Degrees were conferred to an inaugural class of 37 professionals representing 17 states and the District of Columbia. The innovative Executive MPH program is a two-year hybrid of online instruction and intense on-campus training that aims to provide experienced health professionals with a broad foundation of public health knowledge and management and leadership training to help them address today’s multitude of public health challenges. Over 80% of the enrolled students have one or more advanced degrees.

“This graduating class holds a special place in the history of the school,” said program Director Martin Klein, MPH ’86. “It is the first to graduate from the Executive MPH, a milestone for the school and a testament to their collective hard work and individual achievements. They are already leaders in public health and with this degree, their impact on individuals and communities can only become stronger and more lasting.”

One of those receiving an Executive MPH degree was Ronaldo Verian, a unit chief with the California Department of Health Care Services and president of the University of Santo Tomas Nurse’s Association International. Verian said he felt “proud yet humbled” to be part of the first Yale Executive MPH graduating class.

“This program is recommended for those who have high ideals and aspirations to make public health one of the most trusted professions in the world,” Verian said. “The YSPH EMPH program has the program, people, and the promise of a better world through the dedicated and outstanding service of public health professionals imbued with YSPH’s mission and values.”

The value of nothing

Student speaker Noushyar Panahpour Eslami told students that one of the best ways they can share their public health knowledge and build community trust is by talking with others about – nothing. Despite all of the elaborate public health skills and training they have received over the past two years, students should be mindful of the value of a casual conversation, he said.

“Simply talking to people for the sake of hearing what they have to say is severely underrated as a ‘qualitative research method,’” Panahpour Eslami said. “Getting to know people for who they are before trying to sell them on the next big thing in public health is how we will overcome the many barriers of misinformation that will be presented to us moving forward.”

Student awards

Dean’s Prize for Outstanding M.P.H. Thesis: Emily Alice Goddard (“Short-term exposure to wildfire smoke PM2.5 and symptoms of anxiety and depression among U.S. veterans: a cross-sectional study”) and Caroline Ann Pastrana Helsen (“Are News Media Organizations Protecting Youth Mental Health? A Content Analysis of the Top 4 News Organizations on TikTok”)

Wilbur G. Downs Outstanding Thesis Prize in International Health: Savanna Sammie Sunflower Randi (“Epidemiology of human hookworm (Necator americanus) infection in rural Ghana: Investigating host-parasite factors that mediate infection”)

Outstanding MPH Thesis Prize in Health Equity: Anna Grace Preston (“I was reaching out for help and they did not help me”: Mental Healthcare in the Carceral State”) and Sydney Hussett-Richardson (“Hair-Esteem Toolkit for Black Girls”: The development of a self-esteem toolkit for Black adolescent girls centering hair as a tool for empowerment”)

Henry J. (Sam) Chauncey Jr. Inspiration Award (Health Management Program): Jacob Michael Eisner

Lowell Levin Award for Excellence in Global Health: Anqi He

Student Award for Outstanding Contributions to Advancing Belonging, Equity, and Justice: Eiman Abayazed Abdoalsadig, Nassim Ashford, Maame-Owusua Boateng, and Mukund Vishwa Sai Desibhatla

Faculty and teaching awards

Teaching Fellow Award: Sarah Megiel

Distinguished Student Mentoring Award: Sarah Lowe and Joshua Warren

Distinguished Teaching Award: Chelsey Carter

Submitted by Colin Poitras on May 22, 2023