People entering the field of public health face issues that are becoming more complex by the day, journalist Laurie Garrett told graduating students at the EPH Commencement Day in May. “Your work will by necessity be global. It will probably have to be executed with fewer resources than you have today.”
Ms. Garrett, a medical writer for Newsday and author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism for her coverage of the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa. She began her Commencement remarks by citing the optimism that reigned in public health 20 years ago. There was hope, she said, that many diseases would be eradicated, changing the role of public health workers. “For the last 20 years at least one aspect of that scenario has become true,” she said. “It is the loss of the traditional role of public health. Government no longer wishes to pay for it.”
And in that time, she said, health problems have become more complicated as the population ages, HIV continues to spread and illness travels with ease across the globe, which is fast becoming “one massive, human petri dish.” Public health workers will also find themselves dealing with people whose native languages are spoken by only a few thousand people in remote pockets of the Third World. “How do you say ‘push’ to a woman in labor who just came to San Diego from a small village in Guatemala?” she asked. “Spanish won’t do. No matter how many languages you speak, it isn’t enough.”
Graduates cheered and applauded when she criticized the federal government’s refusal to fund needle exchange programs. Students taped syringes to their mortarboards in a gesture of support for the programs.
As they advance in their careers, she said, graduates will absorb foreign languages and cultures, learn how government works, teach people about public health and learn to survive “monsoons” like the one that blew in during Commencement. Graduates, friends and families gathered under a tent on the lawn for the ceremony.
Echoing Ms. Garrett’s thoughts, Dean Michael H. Merson, M.D., said, “This is a time when challenges to our profession have never been so many and the needs so great.”
In her class address, student speaker Andrea Kim stressed what she considered to be the unique quality of the class. “There is a feeling of camraderie and respect among all of us,” she said as she urged her classmates to abandon “comfort zones” and try get to know others. “Sometimes we completely miss the opportunity to get to know someone because of the walls we build around us. Public health is a field where relating to people is essential.”
Some graduates are continuing their education and plan to obtain M.D. or Ph.D. degrees. Others have obtained jobs in health care management consulting firms, managed care firms or organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank and Centers for Disease Control.
In addition to 107 M.P.H. graduates, two students received doctor of public health degrees and 10 students received Ph.D.s. The graduates honored Elizabeth Claus, Ph.D., M.D., with the award for excellence in teaching.