About 3,000 people gathered in Seattle on Sunday, June 11, to celebrate the largest graduating class ever from the University of Washington School of Public Health. Speaker Dr. Natalia Kanem, assistant secretary general of the United Nations (UN) and acting executive director of the UN’s Population Fund, called on graduates to unite in promotion of peace and social justice.
“Graduates, your field of public health is as wide as the world,” Dr. Kanem began. “Your mission is the welfare of humankind.”
The UW School of Public Health graduated a record 643 students this spring, including 45 with doctorates, 300 with master’s degrees and 298 with bachelor’s degrees. More than half of the graduates attended the SPH Graduation Celebration, where Dr. Kanem’s message was clear: these are important times and public health plays a vital role in building healthier, safer and more sustainable communities.
“The challenges may appear daunting,” Dr. Kanem said, “but recall the proverb, Do not let what you cannot do tear from your hands what you can. Your vision and talents are sorely needed today. Therefore, focus on what you can do like never before.”
Interim Dean Joel Kaufman echoed this in his final message to the group, saying, “We live in times that are at once exciting and at many times frightening. As you celebrate your graduation today, remember that you can be a change-maker.”
Dr. Kanem, who earned her MPH from Washington in 1990, highlighted some of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – an end to poverty, zero hunger, better health and well-being for all, education, clean water, decent jobs and equality. She spoke passionately about one, in particular: Peace, justice and strong institutions.
She told the story of 10-year-old Fatina, from a mountain community in Tanzania, where livestock is highly prized and cultural traditions dictate her place is in the household. For Fatina, preparing for marriage is more important than getting an education.
“Today, there are literally millions of Fatinas in all corners of the globe,” Dr. Kanem said. “What we have come to learn is that the health and welfare of the society at large depends on the health and welfare of each of its most vulnerable members. In truth, the future belongs to a 10-year-old girl.”
When a girl is able to exercise her rights, stay healthy and complete her education, she and everyone around her wins. The lesson here, according to Dr. Kanem, is that local, national and global action is necessary so that no one is left behind.
Dr. Kanem empowered graduates to take every opportunity to defend the rights of women and girls worldwide. She also encouraged them to build bridges, “to explore rather than repel difference, and to humanize [their] work.” She challenged students to be creative and to “give [themselves] the thrill of solving some of the world’s hardest problems.” Finally, she reminded students to find time for themselves.
“Know thyself and heal thyself. Pace yourself, so you don’t get tired in battle,” she said. “The world needs your talent and to be good for others, you must be good to yourself.”
Also speaking at the celebration was Dr. Heather Fowler, a veterinarian and now graduate of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. Advocating for a One Health approach to public health, Dr. Fowler implored graduates to “extend their reach beyond their home disciplines in order to address the world’s emerging and complex issues.”