2024 Commencement Speaker Address

woman in cap and gown speaking at podium


Dr. Suzanne Devlin, Chair, Organizational and Leadership Psychology Department

Good morning! Congratulations Graduates! Welcome!

Welcome, distinguished guests, esteemed faculty and staff, and the families and loved ones of these accomplished individuals before us today.

My name is Suzanne Devlin, and I am the Chair of the Department of Organizational and Leadership Psychology.

It is my distinct honor to introduce today’s Commencement speaker, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

Dr. Walensky is a renowned physician, scientist, and leader who guided our nation—and the world—through the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic as the 19th Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She has also served as a distinguished professor at Harvard Medical School and the Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Her journey in medicine and public health is marked by a profound commitment to scientific excellence, advancing healthcare equity, and investing in the well-being of all communities.

Dr. Walensky’s leadership offers invaluable lessons in effective crisis management, breaking down systemic structures of oppression, and the impact of ethical leadership. She exemplifies the necessity of transparency, collaboration, empathy, and continuous learning, when serving any group of constituents.

In her role as scholar, Dr. Walensky’s research, particularly with HIV/AIDS, has been globally influential, shaping policies and treatment protocols that have saved countless lives. There are hundreds of peer-reviewed publications to her credit.

As a social justice trailblazer, she has been instrumental in ensuring that vulnerable and marginalized communities have access to vaccines, healthcare resources, and beyond.

Her adaptive leadership allowed her to navigate the rapidly changing landscape of the pandemic, demonstrating flexibility and responsiveness to new developments amidst an ever-evolving situation.

As a transformational leader, Dr. Walensky developed public health strategies using data-based decision making, clear and transparent communication, and the engagement of a complex network of stakeholders that rebuilt trust in our nation's health care institutions.

Dr. Walensky’s approach to public health underscores the value of collaboration and partnerships. By working closely with state and local health departments, other federal agencies, and international organizations, she facilitated a coordinated response to the crisis.

Additionally, her warmth and empathy have been crucial in building connections and fostering a sense of community during a time of great uncertainty.

A notable scholar in organizational psychology, Dr. Edgar Schein, teaches us that true leaders do not shy away from the complexities and challenges of their roles but rather embrace them as opportunities for growth and positive change. Dr. Walensky's career has been a testament to this, as she has navigated the complexities of global health crises with courage and clarity, always prioritizing the health and safety of the public.

Dr. Walensky's ability to maintain public trust, prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable, and make courageous, ethical decisions in the face of unrelenting pressures serves as a model for us all. She reminds us that true leadership involves not just thinking through challenges with others, but also offering hope and healing for the heart and soul.

Today, as we celebrate the achievements of our graduates, let us be inspired by Dr. Walensky's example. Let us strive to increase access to helping and healing solutions in our own organizations and communities, ensuring that our efforts contribute to the well-being and equity of all.

Please join me in welcoming this visionary leader and compassionate healer, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

Commencement Address

Rochelle P. Walensky, former Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Thank you so much, Mr. President.

What a privilege it is to receive this honorary degree and to be with here today with Chief Lester Baker, Attorney Josephine McNeil, other celebrated guests, the faculty, leadership, family and friends of William James College.

 Most of all... it is my honor to be here with you... the distinguished William James College class of 2024... and your loved ones... on the college’s 50th anniversary!

Indeed, I am certainly humbled to be chosen to receive this honorary degree though, in truth, it seems unfair in this post-pandemic moment to declare a single person deserving of any award for their efforts. So many of us have been fighting for so long together... so many of us have suffered individually and collectively.

In fact, I’m told that the field work of you all -- the students of William James College—collectively contributed to 20,000 service hours – the equivalent of 500 full-time professionals—in mental health during a time when I can’t have imagined needing it more.

As we celebrate all that you have accomplished and your exciting new beginnings, I want to take a moment to thank those who supported you... and encouraged you... to push forward on your academic journey.

While it is you who have persevered... waded through the literature... navigated through complex behavioral health agencies... immersed yourself with the youth, and the elderly, the vulnerable and the scarred... let us take the time to remember those whose love and support made your stamina possible.

 Students here at William James are like Kevin Lambert, who served in the Army, and was deployed to Iraq has come home to William James—first for his bachelor’s degree, and today having earned his Master’s Degree—and was deeply engaged in the TVTV program—Train Vets to Treat Vets.  Kevin knows that there are 18 million veterans, and 2.1 million active duty and reserve members—all who carry a disproportionate burden of PTSD, depression and suicide and he is impassioned and committed... and now deeply trained... to help.

 Also, receiving her PsyD today is Caroline Kaye, who served as a student representative to the National Association of School Psychologists and who has demonstrated a firm commitment to treating the underserved, where research has highlighted nearly a two-fold increase in emergency department visits related to mental health.

 And Ann Bruck, receiving their Masters today—with a concentration in LGBTQIA+ studies and served as a student co-leader for the Rainbow Alliance. Among the transgender population in the US, an astounding 44% have attempted suicide.

 I highlight these students not because they are the only exceptional ones... there are certainly too many extraordinary graduates to name them all.  But rather to remind us all of the astonishing need that William James College—and you, the graduates—will now all fill in addressing the paucity of mental health support for this country, for our neighbors and, critically, for each other.

And so now, truly inspired by the stories I have heard about how you are already stepping up for your communities in need... I have the humbling task of electrifying you to do more... to engage differently...

So, here it goes...

Little known—my master’s in public health was a concentration in decision science. The leading textbook in the field is “Decision Making in Health and Medicine” and was co-authored by my teacher and mentor, Milton Weinstein.

To highlight its importance, Chapter 2 “Managing Uncertainty” opens with … and I quote: ”Much of clinical medicine and health care involves uncertainties: some reducible, but some irreducible despite our best efforts and tests. Better decisions will be made if we are open and honest about these uncertainties, and develop skills in estimating, communicating, and working with such uncertainties.”

So what do we do with gray, with uncertainty? The gray of the pandemic, the gray of science, the gray of the future... of YOUR future.

What do we do when technology and Google and Chat GPT provide instantaneous comprehensive answers to millions of questions at our fingertips? What do we do, when we’re trained and schooled to be precise, to know the answer definitively and to be rewarded for it, but when the future, and indeed even the path toward it—is gray?

Uncertainty instills vulnerability and fear and so we tend to suppress it.  In fact, the scientific literature has demonstrated a direct impact of uncertainty on mental health – it is closely related to anxiety and stress, to burnout and paralyzing indecision. Chronic uncertainty can contribute to hopelessness and helplessness and... eventually depression. Does any of this sound familiar to you? To your patients and clients?

But let’s consider what if we acknowledge uncertainty... if we accept it. Perhaps easier said than done.  While I have had an academic career in decision science—naming and quantifying uncertainty—I spent three pandemic years making decisions—first for a hospital and then for a country during imperfect times, with imperfect data and incomplete science and with the whole world watching.

Certainly, my job—and your future—would be easier if there had been more answers than questions. But instead, we build resilience, we enhance coping, we rely on a strong support network, and we develop a tolerance for the unpredictable. And sometimes we have to do it in real time... on live TV!  One of my secret coping skills—carry a navy suit in your suitcase wherever you go... you never know when you’ll be on a direct flight to Washington.

But, I’ll tell you, in my fog of pandemic gray—I embraced some unbelievable gifts in my path.  I promise you, I never went into medicine anticipating a pandemic, anticipating a Presidential appointed position, anticipating an honorary degree that landed me in front of you today.

As you begin your journey, I encourage you to embrace—not to suppress—the gray—to follow the path uncertain, the questions unanswered, the approaches unconventional. And to lead by example for your clients – who you encourage to do the same—as you never know where they will lead you.

Twenty-seven years ago, I sat at my medical school graduation, hopeful to help one patient at a time, focused simply on doing good in the world, and with a pretty well-conceived plan.

See, in med school, I thought I was supposed to be a dermatologist—with frequent rotations in dermatology and in dermatopathology – and discussions with potential mentors about what a private dermatology practice entailed.

But in 1991, the disease ravaging inner city Baltimore, where I trained, was AIDS.

It was a disease killing many. Science offered few answers, therapies were nonexistent, and paradoxically those patients who most needed support and resources often had the least of either. So I pivoted, traveled down the completely unpaved path.

And I certainly didn’t expect my path – a pretty fuzzy one at the time—would lead me to serve as the 19th director of CDC.

Who knows where YOUR exciting path will lead?

As you begin your journey, I encourage you to embrace—not to suppress—the gray.

And I humbly share several lessons I learned in my career with the hope that they will be of help to you.

First, connect with your work, follow what intrigues you, inspires you, and keeps you motivated. And if you discover you enjoy something unexpected, explore it further—travel down that unpaved path. It may lead to an unanticipated calling.

Second, be inclusive, consider everyone, and listen to stories of those who are different. This is what you have been so well-trained to do... strive to understand the lived experiences of others and the obstacles they face.

Third, do hard things—address the challenges that are most difficult, most refractory, most untouched because they are too hard.  The solutions will be slow to come and the path may be frustrating, but learn and accept the inevitable shortcomings. After all, the worst thing you can do is underestimate yourself. If you are nervous, you aimed true—and know that you are working to be the best version of yourself.

And finally, in the juggle of life, do not drop the glass balls—those precious ones that are too fragile to let break. And YOU are one of those. Take time for your own mental and physical health. I have no doubt that you will make us proud. Let me just close by saying that I also ask that you be gentle with yourselves. I’ve asked you to embrace the gray but I want to remind you of a saying I learned in the practice of medicine, and I have applied to my more recent job at CDC and is very applicable to you in your next steps. “Never worry alone.”

This whole wide world—and our local communities—need your skills and expertise... badly. You are our future—and by the looks of things, I would say we are in very good hands.

One thing is for certain... there is uncertainty ahead, there’s fog ahead... and there are bright colors ahead... Embrace your path... embrace the gray... and then... go find your rainbow.

My warmest wonderful congratulations to the Williams James class of 2024!


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