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The power of coming together for public health

Posted on June 27, 2017

The beginning of the summer is often a slow time at universities. But not at the Dornsife School of Public Health. On June 12 at our second ever school-wide graduation ceremony, 142 students received MPH or other master’s degrees and six received bachelor’s degrees (our very first cohort!). For the first time, 17 doctoral students were hooded by their advisors as part of the ceremony.  We made student awards that recognized academic excellence as well as civic engagement. Faculty were also acknowledged for teaching, mentoring, and public health practice.

We were privileged to hear an inspiring and moving address by Imam Khalid Latif, University Chaplain of NYU and the NYPD. He encouraged us to value diversity and to seek ways to enhance understanding, eliminate prejudice, and work together towards common goals. Drawing on his own experiences, he beautifully articulated the values that underlie our public health work. We also heard from Dr. Jihad Zreik, a student who reflected on his experience as an MD now with a brand new MPH degree. Madison Davidson, MPH ‘15, current President of the Public Health Alumni Network, welcomed the graduates to our newly active alumni association and encouraged them to join other alumni in staying connected to our community.

I am always pleasantly surprised by these graduation ceremonies. One might think of them as predictable and repetitive. But every time I find them to be surprisingly moving. Perhaps it is the students as they walk across the stage unsure of how many hands they actually have to shake, or the siblings, parents, spouses and children in the audience, or the speakers who come up to the podium just a tad nervous. I like looking through the rows of faculty sitting on the stage in their multicolored caps and gowns. And I especially like it when we turn the house lights on and ask the family members to stand up and be acknowledged at the end.

Just last month I participated in another event that was similarly moving for me. It was the inaugural meeting of the brand new SALURBAL project (Salud Urbana en America Latina-Urban Health In Latin America). Dornsife SPH researchers came together with researchers from a dozen institutions representing 10 countries in Lain America.  A group of over 60 researchers and practitioners worked together intensely over three days. Teams that had never interacted before joined forces to grapple with the challenge of improving health in Latin American cities, and by extension, in cities all over the world. We had intense conversations about how we should be organized, what we should study, how we should share our findings, how to create a network that is at once productive, welcoming and inclusive.  Of course the meeting being in Colombia we biked down the Ciclovia, and we danced and drank canelazos too…

There is incredible power in people coming together with a common mission. This is perhaps what moved me about both of these apparently disparate events, the graduation, reflecting the common mission of our School, and the SALURBAL meeting reflecting the common mission of this fledgling pan-Latin American network. I am always amazed by how this can happen, by the commitment, generosity, and cooperative spirit that we can show. It is ultimately about overcoming obstacles and making the impossible possible. In these times it is critical to hold onto this potential (and this power), and to harness it for the benefit of us all. 

Have a wonderful break (and summer if you are in the northern hemisphere.). Relax, reflect, and recharge. I look forward to seeing you all at our upcoming Urban Health Symposium early next fall, and to welcoming you back to what I am sure will be a new academic year filled with possibilities.