Photography by Diane Bondareff
The CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy held its second Commencement on Thursday, May 31 at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, honoring this year’s graduates of the school’s master’s and doctoral programs.
Alyse Gamble opened the ceremony with a rousing rendition of the national anthem, and Dean Ayman El-Mohandes welcomed the graduates, faculty, and honorees with some timely advice.
“You are graduating during a very challenging time when the public health workforce is tested by socio-political winds that endeavor to prioritize the interest of the few over the good for all and threaten the stability of public health structures that have been well established for decades,” Dean El-Mohandes said. “Cynicism during these times is an easy and seductive escape, but… our mission is to inspire hope and promote resilience. This may be a more challenging path but is aligned with our drive to alleviate pain and desperation even under the most difficult circumstances. As the world relies on us to promote health and prevent disease, we in public health are trained to do so under all conditions.”
Cecile Richards, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, delivered the keynote speech and was awarded an honorary doctorate for her relentless life-long efforts to increase affordable access to reproductive health care and to build a healthier, safer world for women and young people.
Richards called upon the graduates to keep in mind what inspired them to enter the public health field in the first place as they advance in their careers.
“You came to CUNY because you chose to apply your brilliance and your energy to public health and there is no more noble and urgent calling,” Richards said. “As graduates you are probably all headed into very different careers and futures but you’re united by this important belief… that healthcare is not a privilege, it is a fundamental human right and we have to stand up for that every single day. We have to hold that truth up because it’s being tested and threatened every single day… You’re going to have to create the social change we need and you’re going to have to make some trouble.”
Outgoing CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken also addressed the graduates as one of his last acts of duty. He lauded SPH’s role in combating social inequities by promoting and facilitating access to quality healthcare and nutrition for all.
“CUNY is much more than the sum of its parts, but this part, the School of Public Health, fills me with great pride and optimism,” Milliken said. “Optimism because of you, for a future that will be more equitable, more peaceful, more inclusive, and more successful than today and that’s what will make this city and this country great for everyone.”
Sergio Matos, co-founder and executive director of the Community Health Worker Network of NYC, was presented with the Champion of Public Health Award. In his acceptance speech, Matos said his mother’s dying wish was for him to attend college and that CUNY made that wish a reality. In addition to congratulating the graduates, he also thanked their families and loved ones for enabling their graduate studies with their assistance and support.
“CUNY is a very special place in that… people come to CUNY with a valuable life history, a life history that contributes to the development of their education and future professional abilities,” Matos said. “And that’s why I think it’s so important to congratulate you, certainly for having achieved this enormous milestone, but also those members of your family and support systems that have made that possible for you.”
Once the graduates from the master’s and doctoral programs were presented with their diplomas, Dean El-Mohandes encouraged them to take out their smartphones and capture the moment with a selfie.
“This is a moment you should document,” Dean El-Mohandes said. “You will take many pictures today; with your professors, with your dean. You will take other pictures with your family and friends after the ceremony… This picture represents your personal achievement. No one can take this moment away from you. Bring this picture back when you feel that you need encouragement and when you need to find your inner sunshine, your inner strength and your inner hope. Congratulations, this moment is yours.”