"Troublemakers Who Change Lives"

Planned Parenthood Chief Cecile Richards Salutes Mailman School Class of 2016, Urging Graduates to Take Risks in the Name of Public Health

May 18, 2016

Addressing more than 600 members of the Mailman School Class of 2016, Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, affirmed the possibilities of public health to create change on the most pressing challenges we face.

“If there is one piece of advice I can give you today,” Richards said, “to disrupt the status quo, you are going to have to get in trouble.” In an address that went on to cite Congressman John Lewis, birth control pioneer Estelle Griswold, and the speaker’s mother, the late Ann Richards, governor of Texas, Richards saluted the graduates for their willingness to make the sacrifices needed in a lifetime working to improve population health—and to be “the kind of troublemakers who change lives.”


“You could’ve let public health issues in Flint, Michigan, or West Texas or sub-Saharan Africa be someone else’s problem. But when you dedicated your life to public health, that’s not what you signed up for,” she said.

Richards recounted a century of activism by Planned Parenthood, starting with Margaret Sanger’s illegal distribution of contraceptive information from a Brooklyn storefront to the organization’s recent success getting birth control covered under the Affordable Care Act. 

“As you have learned in your time at Mailman, to change health outcomes, you have to change health systems,” Richards said. “You need to use research, as you have already done, to understand and diagnose the problem, but you then have to use activism and advocacy to provide the cure.”

Among the graduates was the largest class of master’s students in the School’s history, including the first students to earn a Master of Health Administration, which the School likens to a “healthcare MBA.” In the mix were hundreds of students, faculty, and staff from all departments and degree programs wearing pink buttons to signal support for reproductive health and to recognize the commencement speaker.

In her remarks, Mailman School Dean Linda P. Fried reminded the class that public health must always be ready with new thinking to confront unforeseen challenges like the Zika outbreak, which brought an unprecedented threat to expectant mothers, and resistance to the evidence that sugary beverages are a major factor in worsening rates of childhood obesity.

“We are only successful when we allow our thinking to evolve, fearlessly exploring new avenues that others haven’t tried or didn’t even know were on the map,” said Dean Fried. “It is the critical provenance of public health to bring new thinking and then break through with science and evidence that can transform that thinking into solutions for intractable problems and deliver better health for populations.”

Dean Fried presented Richards with the Mailman School of Public Health Visionary Leadership Award, acknowledging deep ties between the School and Planned Parenthood, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in October. Dozens of alumni work for the organization; meanwhile many of its employees apply to be Mailman students. The Dean also pointed to a March student rally in defense of Planned Parenthood organized to coincide with the precise moment Richards took the fight for reproductive rights to the front steps of the Supreme Court.

Echoing Richards’ speech, student speaker Arielle Juberg, MPH in Population and Family Health, said public health is defined by people who band together to effect positive change. Juberg cited evidence of this attitude in her classmates who supported each other through a rigorous curriculum and confronted challenges like Ebola, attacks on women’s reproductive rights, and structural racism, both in and out of the classroom. She also spoke of inspiration gained from the School’s faculty.

“Our class has had the privilege of learning from professors and mentors who joined with others to confront injustices and disparities,” said Juberg. “Their examples—working in the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for the rights of HIV-positive women, and advocating for environments free of lead and other toxins—inspire us. In our time here, we’ve witnessed the powerful change that occurs when we come together as a community.”

Recognizing two exemplary faculty members, Austin Coe, past present of the Graduate Student Association, presented Martina Pavlicova, associate professor of Biostatistics, with the Teaching Excellence Award, and Joseph Graziano, interim chair of Environmental Health Sciences, with the Core Teaching Award. (Pavlicova was also the recipient of a University-wide Presidential Teaching Award.)

At an earlier ceremony, Dean Fried presented Katrina Kezios and Ramael Osasogie Ohiomoba with Outstanding Teaching Assistant Awards. Austin Montgomery Coe was given the Campbell Award for “exceptional leadership and Columbia Spirit,” and Juan Manuel Flores received the John and Kathleen Gorman Public Health Humanitarian Award. An additional 36 students received awards in 24 categories for departmental distinctions.

Even more members of the Class of 2016 have already secured prestigious positions that represent the breadth of public health—at among others, UNICEF, the University of Chicago, the Baltimore City Health Department, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Merck, Genentech—and of course, Planned Parenthood.

In the culmination of commencement exercises, graduating students were recognized individually, cheered on by family, friends, professors, and other well-wishers. Departmental chairs “hooded” 21 doctoral students; more than 600 Master’s students were presented with a scroll printed with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Students officially graduate in a University-wide ceremony today.

The ceremony concluded as Dean Fried led graduates in the Oath for Public Health Professionals, starting with the words, “Health is a human right."

Watch a video of Commencement: