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Op Eds

For a Bright Future, Hold Fast to a North Star

By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Michelle A. Williams, Contributing Opinion Writer
Michelle A. Williams is the Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development and the Dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

It is my honor to join you at this crossroads, Class of 2023. I’ve had the enormous privilege of witnessing a new cohort of students arrive, learn, grow, and sharpen during each of my seven years as dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Come graduation, these students sparkle with possibility. They are prepared to think deeply and lead well in a uniquely difficult world.

The same holds true for all of you. You all have grit, tenacity, and now, the special privilege and power of a Harvard pedigree.

Today, I join you on the threshold of a new adventure. Like you, I am wrapping up a pivotal chapter in my career — my tenure as dean — and beginning another. I find myself returning to advice that has proven helpful to me, and that I hope might be a touchstone for you as well: Hold fast to your North Star.

Let’s take a step back. As a first-generation college student, I rose to become the first Black female dean of a Harvard graduate school. I identified my North Star early. While studying genetics at Princeton, I recognized that I didn’t want to pursue knowledge chiefly for knowledge’s sake: I wanted to solve real-world problems. I consciously honored my desire to make a societal impact and let it guide me to where I am today.

Only you know what you were put on this planet to accomplish. But I’m willing to bet that within the particularity of your passion, within the vicinity of your North Star, you’ll find an underlying desire to build a more resilient and equitable world for the sake of your own and future generations.

This is a charge that resonates deeply with public health professionals. But we do not have a monopoly on it. The realities facing all of us are stark. We live in a world where a global pandemic has laid bare systemic racial inequities that are as heartbreaking as they are stubborn. A world where climate change is creating devastating new challenges, almost daily. A world that will be warmer, wetter, and more volatile, with an all but inevitable escalation in conflicts around the globe. This cascade of crises calls out for innovative solutions.

We need you.

And so, as you plan your futures, I hope you will think of yourselves as ambassadors for public health. Whether you become engineers or lawyers, computer scientists or dentists, pastors or teachers or writers or therapists or any of the countless other careers you might pursue, you will have an opportunity in your workplaces and in your neighborhoods to advocate for health and justice. To fight for equity and access. To shape more resilient and sustainable societies. To uphold the dignity and worth in every human being. These are the values that define public health — and they are values that you can do a great deal to advance, whatever your field.

Hold fast to your North Star. Choose it consciously, and make sure it reflects your values. Let it steer what you do and how you serve. As you rise in your careers, you will encounter many different agendas and value systems.

If you have that North Star, your decisions will not feel ad hoc. People will see a consistency that builds trust. And in turn, you will build a better world.

I’ll leave you with two quotes. The first, from trailblazing Black tennis player Arthur R. Ashe, is one that I’ve kept on the wall by my desk for many years. It recently became the motto for Harvard HealthLab, the first accelerator at the University focused on nurturing student startups geared toward social impact. HealthLab has attracted students from a broad range of disciplines.

Ashe said: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” For us, these words resonate as a collective North Star. If you find that this motto fits for you too, use it.

The second quote comes from Chester M. Pierce ’48, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School who went on to have a stellar career in psychiatry.

“The greater virtues are wisdom, justice, and intelligence. Lesser virtues are qualities such as gentleness, kindness, cheerfulness, joy, and gratefulness,” he observed. “Now I am coming to the view that the lesser virtues in fact are ancestors and commanders to the greater virtues.”

I offer these two wonderful touchstones to you, along with my heartfelt congratulations and best wishes.

Michelle A. Williams is the Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development and the Dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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Op EdsCommencement 2023

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