May 19 2020

Commencement 2020: 'The World Needs Your Expertise'

Held online to uphold social distancing in midst of a global public health crisis, the 2020 Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health Commencement Ceremony celebrated the achievements of students graduating into a world where their expertise is needed more than ever before.

“You are graduating at a precious moment in history when the world knows it needs your public health expertise, your passion, and your leadership,” Dean Linda P. Fried told graduates. “The past few months have proven to the entire world the vital importance of investing in public health—our knowledge and expert practices—to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, and to improve health to be able to resist disease.”

The afternoon ceremony was held on Zoom with approximately 750 graduating students—Columbia’s largest-ever class of public health students—joined by faculty, staff, family members, and friends. Many graduates wore Columbia blue cap and gown; some added digital backgrounds that made them appear on campus. A virtual procession of live video—graduates greeted one another by waving, and in some cases, dancing—was followed by commencement speeches, the conferral of awards and degrees, and a recitation of the Public Health Oath. Each graduate was acknowledged with a slide displaying their photograph and personal message (many graduates thanked their parents).

In a keynote address, Harriet A. Washington, ethicist and author of books on environmental racism and medical experimentation on African-Americans, said disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 in communities of color stem from a long history of injustices that created conditions like elevated levels of air pollution that compromise lung function. While the racial component of infectious outbreaks like HIV and Zika caught many by surprise, Washington called on the Class of 2020 to “become the first generation of public health leaders who are not surprised by the link but who anticipate it, test for it, and confront it early on.”

In keeping with the theme of Washington’s speech, Oxiris Barbot, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, adjunct professor of population and family health, and member of the Columbia Mailman School Board of Overseers, told graduates, “there has never been a more a more urgent time for public health professionals to fully commit to performing our fundamental role—creating a more just and equitable world.”

Anette Wu, MPH ‘08, president-elect of the Columbia Mailman School Alumni Board and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, added her congratulations, welcoming the Class of 2020 to an alumni community of more than 12,000—a network she said provides support for career development, collaborations, and personal growth. “Please keep in touch,” she said, “for your own enrichment and benefit and also for the benefit of the alumni community at large.”

Student speaker Shali Pai said her experience as a public health student taught her to question preconceived notions while giving her the tools to uncover complex factors, including social forces, that create ill health. “We have been encouraged by our professors to question the data, question the programs, and constantly question ourselves and our teams.” She urged her fellow graduates to resist the idea of returning to normal after the pandemic is over; instead, she asked them to embrace public health’s mission of “bringing people and environments to a new and better baseline.”

Watch the Recording