CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy 2020 Commencement Address

02 Jun 2020

City University of New York School of Public Health and Health Policy 2020 Commencement Address by Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director, UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.


Dean El-Mohandes,

Faculty and officials of the City University of New York School of Public Health and Public Policy.

Graduates of the class of 2020!

Congratulations! It’s a glorious moment of achievement for you and your proud families and supporters. I am happy to share it with you.

And I am greatly honoured to receive the 2020 Honorary Doctor of Science Degree in Public Health. I thank the School for this tremendous recognition, all the more meaningful for me having been a student of Professor of Jack Geiger and working now with UNFPA as a proponent of equal rights and reproductive health for women and girls everywhere.

We are living through momentous times, making clear that the health of the public matters more than ever. Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, today’s ceremony may not be as you imagined it. However, the world needs your imagination, your ingenuity to fashion a new dynamic for public health – as you do your part to strengthen health systems and to deliver care with care.

As we celebrate you, I thank you, for joining the ranks of people with courage to stand up for the public good that health represents as the world situation tests our capacity and our resolve. You are embarking upon a noble mission like no other. It represents the continuity of human effort over centuries to conquer death and disease. It is a commitment that needs continually to be renewed.

Here are words of the celebrated poet and diplomat, Octavio Paz of Mexico, writing in 1950 In The Labyrinth of Solitude:  "Learn to look reality in the face. If necessary, we must invent new words and new ideas for these new realities that are challenging us.”

Who will compose the next chapter of human history with those new words and new ideas and seize the courage to bend the arc of history towards justice? YOU will influence that historic change when we build back better from the challenge of COVID-19, as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says. And what will our resilient new future look like? Choose to lead, to speak to the change that you want to see. On as prominent a platform as you require, harness your power as a young person or a differently abled person, or someone with a special perspective that stems from your cultural or ethnic background. And use that power for the public good.

COVID has been called the great equalizer. Never for a moment believe that. The pandemic is showing up the double and triple inequalities for too long inherent in our societies. The data and evidence reveal this. It’s a pandemic that decimates along the axes of poverty, race, ethnicity, with indigenous and African descendant populations the world over bracing as they are becoming the hardest hit by far.

As you leave this institution, cloaked in your newly won achievements, your cohort transforms. Your CUNY professional community will be with you for a lifetime, as hopefully by the year 2030 we realize the joint aspirations declared through the Sustainable Development Goals: health and wellbeing for all, a gender equitable world for all and a commitment to leave no one behind.

Collaboration is central to defending the public’s health. Teamwork – it makes the dream work. Even in these times of safe distancing, physically, we still need each other. As you disperse into a world of unknowns, ask questions that don’t yet have answers. Reach out and pull together and lift each other up. I found out that there’s a productive tension between collaboration, which entails accommodation and a spirit of resistance to the status quo. That spirit of inquiry that brings in your original thinking. So do fine tune your creativity, intuition, perhaps your quirky way of approaching an issue. In other words, don’t always feel that you have to conform, and don’t flinch from your original mind.

Dear Graduates,

It was Audrey Lorde who said: “Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now.”

It all begins here, with your outstanding CUNY education. May your passion for public health lead you to create new ways of making the world safer and better, especially for vulnerable women and girls.

Wherever your path takes you, my wish for you is unlimited horizons.

I hope that in future years, you will return to CUNY as a proud contributing alum to recount your public health triumphs large and small.

Muchisimas Gracias! Thank you!

Well done, Class of 2020!

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