Good morning. It is always a pleasure to speak at a graduation ceremony because of the celebratory feeling that comes with such an event. Having moved to Namibia nearly one year ago, I know I will miss a few weddings and other celebrations back home, but I am so pleased that this is already my second graduation ceremony to be attending here.
As an organization, CDC places a strong focus on personal development. We care not only about what the organization needs, but we also care about what individuals need and where each employee hopes his or her career to go and what is needed to get to that goal. As part of this personal direction setting, many people in our organization too want to add to their academic qualifications, whether it is through a PhD, a master’s course, or a focused shorter course. I am very pleased to see that the FELTP program has, through funding from the World Health Organization, expanded to include the 3-month short course option. This is an important course not only for building the epidemiological capacity within government but also for individuals. While many people would like to complete a PhD or masters course, this is often not an option due to work, financial or family priorities – to name just three reasons why I am not currently studying for my own PhD. A high-quality, intensive three-month course is an achievable goal that allows individuals -– and workplaces that release these individuals -– to further their qualifications and increase their capacity to serve their country, while still coping with the life pressures that we all face. As one of the American Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, once said, “an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” I congratulate you all on having the courage, the vision, and the energy, to sign up for and complete this course.
Today is a celebration of hard work and I am glad to be here sharing it with you. When J.K. Rowling (the author of the Harry Potter series) gave the commencement speech (what we call a graduation speech in America) at Harvard University in 2008, she said “I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation….” That set me thinking –- what is it that I wish I had known when I graduated, and what is it that I would like to share with you as you graduate from this course today?
Let me first tackle what I wish that I had known. First, the learning never ends. Like you, I went back after having my professional degrees to take shorter courses to expand my knowledge base. First my diploma in tropical medicine, and then a certificate in public health. But that was only the beginning. On the job learning is by far my favorite kind, for two reasons. First, by definition it is highly relevant to your job … because it is coming from your job. You never have to worry if this really matters in the “real world” when you are learning something in your “real world” job. Second, it can give you the most delightfully unexpected lessons. Since being in Namibia, I’ve come to understand new topics as diverse as which large herbivores pull deeper roots from the soil and thus have higher risk of anthrax in a dry season; the seasons in which men are most likely to agree to be circumcised and the reasons they choose this; and which factors will lead a community to NOT choose a toilet and continue practicing open defecation. Like I said, the learning never ends.
That was what I wish I had known. Secondly, something I would like to share with you. Continuing with the Harry Potter theme — I have a quote from one of the Harry Potter characters: Dumbledore.
“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”
You have all proven that you have academic ability by completing this course- I congratulate you. But as you close this section of your studies, the decision of how you will use these studies will remain with you. Your supervisor knows that you undertook this course, but your supervisor will not know exactly what you have learnt and what you can do now that you couldn’t do before. Each one of you will have the choice to put the knowledge you have gained into practice. It may be that we see a new disease outbreak next week and one of you will be on the frontline helping with the investigation. It may be that one of you will return to your position and will be have the opportunity you to use the knowledge you have learned in the fight towards ending the hepatitis E outbreak. That choice lies with you. We know you have the ability, but you have the choice to use it.
Don’t wait for it to be dragged out of you. The many pieces of knowledge you have gained in this course are like ingredients sitting on your kitchen shelves. They don’t do any good just sitting there. And you could just wait until somebody requested one of them before you used it. But how much better it is to look at your ingredients and choose to make something delicious with them. In the same way, go back to your positions with the new ingredients of knowledge you have gained and think of the perfect recipe to use them for a wonderful product that will improve the health of your community. Anything less than that will be a waste.
For those who are wondering what J.K. Rowling spoke about in her commencement speech, she covered two themes. One was the power of imagination, “the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” When Rowling said these words, I doubt she was thinking that she would be quoted to FELTP frontline graduates in Namibia ten years later. This course has helped you to build your capacity to investigate disease outbreaks in Namibia. That involves understanding a disease by person, place and time; but importantly, it also involves understanding the impact these diseases have on individuals. I can have no better example than to again cite the ongoing hepatitis E outbreak. The management of the Ministry of Health and Social Services have spoken about their concerns that the intensity of the service-provider response to end the outbreak is declining. Hepatitis E is not among the world’s most deadly diseases, but for the children who have lost a mother or father in this outbreak, Hepatitis E has made Namibia a sadder and harder place to live in. One life lost is a life too many and we must never lose sight of that. In Namibia it has already been several dozen lives that have been lost. This cannot continue. Please nurture your power of imagination so that you never lose the vital empathy that we need as frontline service providers.
I referenced two themes that Rowling spoke of. For the second theme, I will leave you, as newly-up-skilled researchers, to find out what that theme was for yourself. It may come in handy when facing the challenges ahead of you.
In closing, congratulations on your graduation and may you always choose to put the knowledge you have gained to change the lives of people around you.