May 19 2015

The Start of Something Big

Class of 2015 Recognized for Academic Achievements at Commencement Ceremony

More than 600 graduate students from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health took part in commencement exercises today that celebrated academic achievement and acknowledged the power and possibilities of public health.

The timing could not be more auspicious. Dean Linda P. Fried told students that the past year was a high point for public health and its practitioners. “More than ever before, public health is and must be part of the global and the local conversation,” said Dean Fried.

Mailman Schools students, faculty, staff, and more than 8,000 alumni were front and center in high-profile events from the international People’s Climate March and education efforts around infectious outbreaks of measles and Ebola to the response to tragic incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, Baltimore, and elsewhere.

Dean Fried predicted that the Class of 2015 would participate in further efforts, joining those who “align themselves against ill health, ignorance, and fear.”

Another auspicious sign: demand for public health professionals is red hot. Among the Class of 2014, 96 percent were working in the field or in graduate school six months after graduation.

Common Purpose

In his Commencement address, Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA and recipient of the Dean’s Distinguished Service Award, told this year’s graduates that 2015 has special resonance because it is the year the global community adopts sustainable development goals to improve the health and well-being of people around the world.

The past two decades have shown what the world can achieve when it focuses on common goals, said Osotimehin. Among other accomplishments, nearly 1 billion people escaped extreme poverty. On the other hand, another billion still lives on less than $2 a day. “We have made progress, but it’s not enough,” he said. “Every human being deserves dignity and must be included in development.”

Osotimehin pointed to growing inequality that can exacerbate health crises like the recent Ebola outbreak. He called on Mailman School graduates to protect the most vulnerable whether they are earthquake victims in Nepal or poor people in the United States. “You can be agents of change,” he said.

Tioluwa Olokunde, who like Osotimehin is a Nigerian national, delivered remarks on behalf of the Mailman School graduating class. Olokunde spoke of the power of dreams to overcome limited financial means and graduate from a prestigious school abroad, acknowledging the support of faculty and the courage of classmates who prevailed over their own challenges.

“Though we are a diverse group, we are united by one thing: our unique dreams,” she said. “They are dreams to succeed in our commitment to protect and improve the health of populations in our home countries and all over the world.”

As part of Commencement Day, the School celebrated special achievements of students and faculty.

Honors and Commitments

Amanda Reid, MPH 2015, outgoing Graduate Student Association president, recognized Greg Freyer, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences, with the Teaching Excellence Award, and Ryan Demmer, assistant professor of Epidemiology, with Assistant Professor Teaching Award.

At an earlier ceremony, Dean Fried presented Reni Lauren Ellis and Marcos Daniel Villarreal with Outstanding Teaching Assistant Awards. Nina Morency-Brassard was given the John and Kathleen Gorman Public Health Humanitarian Award, and Anna Marie Larsen received the Bernard Challenor Spirit Prize. An additional 33 students received awards in 24 categories for departmental distinctions.

In the culmination of commencement exercises, graduating students were recognized individually, cheered on by family, friends, professors, and other well-wishers. Departmental chairs “hooded” 33 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 tomorrow.

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