Newswise — Graduates, I hope you will take this time to reflect on what you have achieved in reaching this point in your lives and the significance this accomplishment holds for you, your families, friends, teachers, and for us as a School.

This moment is also an incredibly significant one for me as you, class of 2018, will forever and always, be my first graduating class as Dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health. To honor that moment, I ask you to smile as I snap a selfie for Twitter and Instagram on the count of three… 1 2 3

Being that this is my first graduation with the School, it gives me an opportunity to reflect on the idea of “firsts.” Firsts are the milestones that mark each of your lives: your first steps, your first day at school, your first crush, your first disappointment, your first friend (Facebook and otherwise) and many, many more firsts that have and will demarcate your lives.

Many of you, like me, are the first in your family to graduate from college, and like Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, our Lautenberg Awardee and speaker, and myself, some of you are also the first generation in your family to be born in the United States. For me these are meaningful and powerful firsts. They are ones to which I turn often as a source of comfort, remembering that even when my career presents great challenges that my life has provided me with great opportunities all made possible by the first actions taken by my parents, who crossed the ocean as teenagers to seek a society of equality and opportunity. So that I, their first child, the child of Greek immigrants who each held a 6th grade education, could benefit from what America has to offer and within one generation become the Dean of one of the Nation’s most important Schools of Public Health.

The field of public health also has many momentous firsts: The first U.S. patent on 3-point safety belts was issued in 1955, an event which has resulted in reducing serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about half and estimated to have saved 255,000 lives since 1975 according to the CDC. Introduced in 1796 by Edward Jenner, the smallpox vaccine was the first of its kind, and has nearly eradicated smallpox from the population, and laid the groundwork for vaccines that would follow and save millions of lives. In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health, chaired by then-Surgeon General of the United States Luther Terry, took the first important stance on smoking as a health hazard of sufficient importance in the United States to warrant appropriate remedial action. The Triangle Shirt Factory Fire of March 25, 1911, took the lives of over 100 mostly young immigrant women, making it one of the worst firsts in US history. Yet this horrendous and deadly first inspired Rose Schneiderman, a prominent activist, to help workers organize and to demand workplace reform, a critical first step in the protection of workers’ rights and the evolution of occupational health. And in 1917, the first woman to receive a Harvard University credential was Linda Francis James. Born in 1891 she earned a certificate in Public Health from the Harvard-MIT School for Health Officers. Finally in 1862, visionary President Abraham Lincoln, while embroiled in the Civil War, played a vital role in the passage of the Morrill Act, also known as the Land Grant College Act, paving the path for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds to gain access to higher education—this act—the first of its kind, laid the groundwork for your public health degree.

Then of course there are the very challenging firsts - the first to raise your hand in class, the first to start dancing at a wedding…

Other firsts have transformed our society. Consider these two, one is hundreds of years old and one is relatively recent: the first to state the Earth is round and not flat AND the first to stand up against their perpetrators whether these be Harvey Weinstein or Jerry Sandusky. Why do I raise these examples with you? Because these firsts have transformed public health and our world.

But being a first is not easy and requires courage, risk taking, conviction, and belief in one’s self. Being a first requires coloring outside the lines, challenging paradigms and conventions, and saying no when everyone else seems to be saying yes.

It requires bravery.

It requires that in your heart you stay true to your ideals and convictions, which I know in all of you are right and good.

In this world, at this particular moment, it is more important than ever that we ALL muster up the courage to fight for what is right, to give a voice to the voiceless, and to challenge the policies and laws which seek to do nothing but oppress and undermine the health of people and populations.

It is because he embodies these ideals that Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is the perfect speaker for the first graduation over which I preside.

We are proud of you, our graduates, as you make your ways into the world, and into the field of public health and beyond. We look to you to lead the way, challenge the norms, fight for the rights of people, and improve the health of our population here in New Jersey, throughout our country and around the world.

I in turn promise you that we the faculty and staff will continue to build a School of Public Health of which you will be proud to be an alum. So, dear graduates go out and make those dreams for a better and healthier world come true.

Congratulations to you and to those who have supported you throughout your journeys.


The Rutgers School of Public Health is New Jersey’s only accredited school of public health. The Rutgers School of Public Health seeks to improve health and prevent disease in diverse populations in New Jersey and around the world through educating students to become well-qualified and effective public health leaders, researchers and practitioners; conducting research to advance public health science and policies; and providing service programs that promote population and individual health.

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