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Drexel Dornsife School of Public Health Graduation 2017

Speakers Urge Graduates to Step Up to Challenges and Possibilities


June 22, 2017

The Drexel Dornsife class of 2017 got an eloquent earful of encouragement and exhortations to stand tall and speak out at the June 12 school graduation ceremony. “You are entering a world rife with challenges and rife with possibilities,” Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, executive director of Hillel at Drexel University, declared in the invocation. “Go forth with great life, laughter and love.”

The student speaker for the class, Jihad Zreik saluted his classmates with a quip: “Be all you can be with a public health degree,” he said. But then Zreik – who added an MPH in health policy and management to his master’s degrees in Forensic Medicine and neuroscience, and his MD/PhD from Penn – turned serious about the difficulties that lie ahead. “You are advocates for humanity, advocates for fundamental human rights regardless of condition, creed or opposition,” he said. “Your mission is not constrained by boundaries of nations, but rather by the capacity for human empathy.”

“We’ve entered an age in public health in which we must defend the values of our profession,” Zreik added. “You must have the courage to speak when you are silenced, the compassion to care when others hate, and the will to hope in the face of despair.”

View Ceremony Photographs

The keynote speaker, Imam Khalid Latif, is the first Muslim chaplain of the New York Police Department – and its youngest, appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg at age 24. Speaking without a script, he offered vivid descriptions of the bias and bigotry he has faced as a Muslim, despite his position. He spoke of being profiled, harassed and detained and pulled off planes. The FBI pays him regular visits, he says, and so he has asked them what they really want from him. “They said, ‘You’re just too good to be true – know that we are watching you,’” Latif recalled. “If that’s what’s happening to someone with my connections, what do you think is happening to others?”

Latif drew applause from the audience when he added: “As a Muslim who comes from a south Asian background, born in New Jersey, and living in New York City and going through all these things, I still couldn’t tell you what it’s like to be a black person in this country.”

He challenged the graduates to closely examine their own thinking and assumptions. “How you see people is not indicative of who they are, but how you see people will tell you a lot about yourself,” he said.

“And if you perceive somebody solely through the way they dress, the color of their skin, whether they have a certain accent or not, the fundamental question you have to ask yourself is ‘Why do you see it that way?’”

Latif emphasized that learning to stand up to forces of bigotry and bias is everyone’s personal responsibility – if they choose to embrace it. “There will be certain things that only we will have the ability to stop because of the unique power and privilege we have been afforded to be able to serve those who are underserved and underprivileged,” he said. “You might be the only one that is standing when everyone else is seated. You might be the only one that is speaking when everyone else is silent – but you might be that critical voice, that critical body that ignites what is needed for everyone else to get going… Don’t hold back from what it is you have the unique ability to offer.”

Latif also told the story of being approached and questioned by “uniformed men” while attending 9/11 anniversary event in his police inspector uniform. Standing next to him was a woman who had lost her son on 9/11, who said to the men, “What you are doing now is more dishonoring the memory of the loved ones we lost that day than anything else.” With that, the shamed authorities turned and went away. In that moment, said Latif, the woman “leveraged her power and privilege, to serve someone who was underserved and underprivileged   just because it was the right thing to do.”

“That’s the kind of goodness you want to be able to harness,” he said.

Latif closed with a blessing: “May you be protected always from hearts that are not humble; tongues that are not wise; and eyes that have forgotten how to cry,” he said. “May your successes of today be the first of many. Go forward and be the reason people have hope in this world – and never the reason people might dread it.”