I am very, very jealous of all of you, in a good way. You are graduating and starting your professional careers in public health at a very exciting and challenging time. From Zika in the Americas to Yellow Fever in Africa, to MERS in the Middle East, and the refugees in Europe… Believe me when I tell you that you have your work cut out for you, and you should be terribly excited.
Here’s the thing, though. You’ve been in public health for a while now. You have influenced public health as students, or in the lives you led before you became students. This is simply the culmination of a training period in your lives where I hope you gained the skills you’ll need to keep all us moving forward into the future. Some of you will lead agencies and organizations into solving some very tough problems. Others will continue the work started by generations of public health workers whose time came and went, and the work continues. And others will venture into other disciplines — like medicine or nursing — but you will take this public health training with you and make it part of your day-to-day lives at work and at home.
I bet that you don’t see the world the same way you did just a few months or years ago, when you first became students in any of the disciplines within public health. Knowing that there are so many challenges, and just as many answers to those challenges, kind of changes you and the way you see things around you. The homeless man with tuberculosis is not a bum to you. He is the result of a set of systems gone awry. A person dying from AIDS is not a sexual deviant or someone who is paying some price for their actions. They are the result of a world full of indifference and divisiveness.
Your vision is now clearer and your focus is sharp as a tack.
But let’s get back to my jealousy. That jealousy comes from seeing all of the young faces among you when I walk the halls of the school or when I meet some of you at conferences and get-togethers. So many of you have no clue what you want to do with your lives, and that’s okay. You know that you want to help people better their lives in one way or another, and that’s a good foundation on which to build your life. Marriage, family, and all those other things will come in due time. Right now, it’s your time. Grab all the bulls in your life by the horns and enjoy the ride.
And, to those of you who are, like me, a little more “seasoned” and entered public health a little bit later in your life, I’m still just as happy for you and proud to call you a colleague. The wealth of experience you’ll bring into the profession — or maybe you already have brought it — will guide young and old around you to also make things better. You know that work-life balance is possible, and there will be plenty of “younglings” looking up to you for guidance.
Finally, I want to tell you that you need to forget your grades right now, right this instant. You have the degree. You’re golden. It’s done. And forget what school you got it from, too. Again, you have the degree. You studied the details and regurgitated the knowledge. It’s time to start accumulating the wisdom, and it will come to you regardless of your past grades or where you went to school. It will come in the daily work you do within public health, from the people you’ll meet, the places you’ll go, the people you’ll help.
You’re already heroes, so enjoy the ride. Just know that you will stumble, you will fall, but, in the end, you will join everyone in the sun. In the end, you and I and the plethora of dedicated public health workers around the world will achieve wonders. I’m sure of it.
Congratulations, and godspeed.