"Take Advantage of Opportunity": At TCs second master’s ceremony, Thomas Frieden cites the need for luck, readiness and hard work in making a better world
“You have the power to transform the learning and caring environments where you work. You have the power to advocate for enlightened public policy. You have the power to promote educational opportunity and overall well-being for everyone, including our most marginalized and vulnerable fellow human beings.”
Those were TC President Susan Fuhrman’s opening words to students receiving their degrees in Biobehavioral Sciences, Counseling & Clinical Psychology, Education Policy & Social Analysis and Health & Behavior Studies at the College’s Tuesday morning master’s degree ceremony. Fuhrman was quick to add that the graduates also face a world where “ manifestations of intolerance are seen in so many distressing events and phenomena,” including “the contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan; the mass incarceration of young black men; the widening disparities in high school graduation rates, income, health and life expectancy; the mounting death toll of unarmed people of color at the hands of police; and, of course, the resonance that ugly appeals to racial and religious prejudice have had among a segment of the voting public.”
The ceremony made abundantly clear that many graduates are already addressing these issues. Fuhrman highlighted two in her remarks: Alison Désir, who was receiving her M.A. in Counseling Psychology, and Raqshinda Khan, a graduate of TC’s program in Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Désir was so active as a child, Fuhrman said, that her parents said she had “powdered feet” – a Haitian Creole expression for someone who is always on the move. Yet a few years ago, searching for a job and dealing with a family health crisis, she found herself “at a standstill” and took up long-distance running. An epiphany followed about the connections between physical and mental health, and Désir eventually enrolled in TC’s Counseling Psychology program “because it emphasizes both social justice and multicultural competence.”
Today Désir is the founder and leader of Harlem Run, a running club that draws hundreds of participants and has become “a national demonstration of the power of combining mental health and fitness interventions,” particularly in low-income communities of color with high incidences of diabetes and other chronic health issues.
“Alison,” Fuhrman said, “thank you for setting the pace.”
Khan began her teaching career working with English language learners in Harlem and Washington Heights, but after enrolling in a deaf education course on a whim, she found herself “powerfully drawn to the learning community of the deaf and hard of hearing – and excited about contributing to a world in which relatively small numbers of hearing people have played a significant role.”
At TC, Fuhrman said, Khan has grown to understand the deaf and hard of hearing as “a larger cultural community in which students embrace their identity and hold sign language as their primary means of expression, and not as substitute for the spoken word.”
“Raqshinda,” she said, “keep spreading the word. We’re all listening.”
Speaking after Fuhrman was Thomas Frieden, Director of the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and former Commissioner of the New York City Health Department, who was receiving TC’s Medal for Distinguished Service.
Frieden, a voice for rational response to the Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks and the leader of successful efforts to prevent the spread of tuberculosis, told the graduates that the keys to engineering positive change are luck and a combination of readiness and hard work. Frieden cited both his own good fortune – such as working under Michael Bloomberg, “the first mayor to have a school of public health named after him” – and occasional bad, such as the time during the 1970s when he accidentally deleted a hard drive containing all the health data of a small nation. It was a vivid reminder, he said, that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
"We are the force, the movement, to realize transformative change, lasting change. Our time at TC isn't ending, it is evolving."
As for readiness and hard work, Frieden advised his listeners to “have within yourself the ability, humility and focus to take advantage of an opportunity.” Ultimately, he said, “each of you have a responsibility to use what you’ve learned in your education to identify opportunities for progress and to use what you know to advance service.”
Following Frieden to the podium, Student Speaker Katherine Cho, who was receiving her master’s degree in Sociology & Education, said that coming to TC was her response to just such an opportunity. A master’s degree was “not on my radar” when she moved to New York six years ago, said Cho said, but soon she found herself asking the question “Why?”
“Why, in the 21st century with all of the knowledge we have, were my students struggling to graduate in four, five, and six-years from college?” said Cho. “Why did they not have the same experiences as I did as an undergraduate? Why did these significant inequities continue to exist?”
Cho concluded by invoking a physics formula to describe the process required for social change.
“Mass is the critical mass of individuals who care about the issue, who think now is the time to act,” she said. “Acceleration happens not just by financial resources, but through the media, exposure, and voices that keep the movement going.”
“TC graduates,” Cho said, “we are the force, the movement, to realize transformative, lasting change. Our time at TC isn’t ending, it is evolving.”
For more Convocation coverage and information, visit tc.columbia.edu/convocation.
Published Tuesday, May 17, 2016