Mikhail Higgins: Choice Breeds Change

Today marks the end of one era and the birth of another.

On this 25th day of May, 2009, we gather to celebrate the completion of degrees that certify the commencement of our transition as students of public health to leaders of public health. We invited our guests to bare witness to this precious milestone and to see us not how we were three weeks ago in unpleasant states of sleep deprivation but rather how we are now…accomplished, bright eyed, bushy-tailed and cool as ever.

Perhaps now is a good time to get that seldom uttered question out in the open?

Why did we come here?
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Maybe, this question is one that your parents, like mine routinely ask you after you kindly forward them your tuition balance?…Perhaps this was the grand finale where you sought to take one final draw at educational bliss while enjoying the comforting indulgences of parental dependence?…

Was it to satisfy your American Idol dreams and play Methods Idol with Professor Andy Epstein?…

Or… was it to test your political wit and submit cartoons in Professor Schlesinger’s first year policy class…and actually get an award for it…

I sure hope not.

I dare say that many of us at some point saw these degrees as a means of empowering us to heal nations. With aspirations of social justice and equity in healthcare, we came here to acquire the knowledge, skills and networks to enable us to make these contributions in our world.

Alas, on this day, as we sit with mentors, friends and with family, I’m confident that we now have final assurance that our decision to proudly set foot on this daring path through public health was no mistake. Beneath the delicate smiles and loving warmth that we exchange in this room, we quietly reflect on our individual and collective journeys to this moment. Unlike those who came to support us who graciously traveled from all over the globe, our paths didn’t necessarily take us through multiple time zones, frustrating connection flights or bumpy treks across the country. Nevertheless, to get to this place, like them, we did pay our dues.

However, what’s more important than what we have paid along the way is that what we’ve shared and witnessed particularly during this last year of our respective journeys has been done together.

In a year where gas prices hit record highs, we carpooled.

When stock markets crashed and Wall Street cringed amidst its great recession, we held pot-lucks…

In a defining election year where cynics and critics discounted the possibility of change, we held each other tightly in living rooms, pubs, and in study lounges…and quietly chanted ‘yes we can.’

Having emerged through this last year, we now know that this day like all the events of this past year is historic. After countless hours of churning SAS code and modeling painful regression analyses, running focus groups or rewriting and rewriting and rewriting that master’s thesis, we have arrived. As we beam with pride and joy of knowing that such things are under our belts, we now press forth to craft history with one another in an historic place on an historic day.

And so our paths have led us to our long- awaited graduation where we gather in Battell Chapel, one of the locations on the Connecticut Freedom Trail which continues to preserve the memory of the role played by Yale faculty and students who in defying the staus quo of their time, embarked on their own triumphant journey to free the Amistad Africans from wrongful imprisonment.

Here we are… on Memorial Day, a most solemn and commemorative holiday, institutionalized to honor the price paid by individuals like you and I who throughout history chose a different, most giving of paths to fight for the liberties and rights that we now enjoy.

As a child of the Caribbean, I too recognize on this day the irony of us newly recruited public health students, being validated as we are deployed in this place and on this day into lives of global service to humanity.

With such reflections, we also remember the legendary public health stalwarts who too have passed through these hallowed halls and those of other great institutions.

We gratefully recognize that through their sacrifice and that of those that came before them that our future contributions can now have meaning. I share such things so that it is clear that everything about this most blessed day is historic and relevant.

What’s even more important is how we are relevant.

As long as children in malaria endemic zones sleep bare without a bed net, we will be relevant.

As long as HIV/AIDS continues to over-burden our African-American and Latino communities and is seen as a rite of passage for young gay and bisexual men, our careers will be relevant.

As long as countries exist where populations are vulnerable to disease from a drink of water, my friends, rest assure that we will be relevant.

Whether we recognize it or not, we have chosen a business where time isn’t money…but lives.

I am convinced that this point alone gives us a lifetime of relevance.

My fellow graduates, as we sit comfortably on this day of recognition that marks the end of our tenure at this fine institution and gaze ahead of these paths that we have chosen, very few things are clear in the distance. We know not the heights of professional stature that we will achieve nor the lives that we will touch. What we do see is that together we will seek change.

Whether we choose to draw attention to the devastation of the neglected diseases of our time or seek health reform or even environmental sustainability, when we peer down our paths, we must see change. As agents of change, our vision lies in our ability to see the world not for what it is but for what it can be.

At this point, we have all demonstrated that we have the proficiencies and skills to sit at the public health table. My hope is that our respective journeys through YSPH has taught us that we have not been called to consume but rather to serve…As we celebrate our graduation, we are so ready to embrace those meaningful tasks that await us: Condemning social injustice, fighting for equity in health care, advocating for the vulnerable and the downcast and offering dedicated mentorship to those who come after us.

Nothing we do is about consumption; it is entirely about service…This…this, is the sheer essence of the path that we have chosen.

As I reflect on this unique course down which we have set, I recall a famed poem by the great American poet, Robert Frost:

Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– ….
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
My friends, you….we…did choose this less traveled road…and I know in my heart of hearts that this will make all the difference.

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