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2012 Commencement

Alec Mkwamba, MS Speaker

Alec MkwambaLooking back, on this day last year, I was in the field in a remote rural district in Zimbabwe. We were conducting a mop-up exercise to try and wipe out the last few cases of the national cholera outbreak that had ravaged the entire nation. We were also busy mobilizing communities to enhance their efforts on malaria prevention and control. At that same time, I had been accepted to the Heller School but was not sure if I would be able to come. I did not yet know that I would have this dream come true. Then I was honored and empowered to receive the Graduate Scholarship in Poverty Alleviation and Community Development, in a history making way.

Many people with great potential somewhere, do not get a chance at an education. Perhaps because of where they live or who they are born to, they may never be able to read a single book. So when I was given the privilege, I felt the responsibility upon me, to maximize the opportunity, to learn and excel as much as I can. Maybe in this way I would try and do what they would have done if only they had the chance. I could learn for them.

I greatly appreciate my parents, for even though they were hardly afforded even minimal education, they realized the value and committed themselves to do all they can to ensure a better vision for us their children, to achieve a break-through from the stubborn social cycles, against the odds. If I had the authority I would award them (my parents) honorary degrees.

I was driven by passion to help people improve their health, thus I chose this profession. Initially I hoped to have a career in medicine, but later came to appreciate how I might reach more people through public health practice. I went to the U.S. embassy in Zimbabwe, and met a career adviser to establish how I could best fulfill my career objectives. She then told me about health policy which might be even more powerful in reaching people's lives, apart from the MPH that I had in mind. And she introduced me to Brandeis University, to this program in particular, and assisted me through the application process. I am grateful to her (Ms Mano).

At a time when my country was struggling to recover from a devastating period, a world record economic crisis harming everything, not sparing the health system, I felt it needs emphasis on public health policy, now more than ever. Before I came here, one time I thought to myself what really it is that I am I going to study. I sought a book on policy and was almost discouraged by the first page. The author who had a PhD started by saying "if you are to ask me to tell you precisely what health policy means, well honestly I don't know." He then said policy is like an elephant, when it is mentioned everyone knows what you are talking about, but if asked to describe it, then that`s something else. I thank God and am grateful to all involved, this MS program has carried me a good distance along the continuum of knowledge about health policy, from minimal knowledge further towards the sound understanding that we aim for. Now I have a better vision and greater hope not only for my country or the region, but even the world over. I see a bigger niche in the puzzle, in which I am competent to fit in.

Different as it is, I believe my story reflects the general career background, pathway and aim of my fellow classmates. Some among us are medical doctors, others allied health practitioners and still others came from other professions. But we now share a common goal to achieve advancement of international development and social justice through proactively effecting positive change in international health.

Much appreciation goes to the professors in the program who gave us highly esteemed knowledge. You know, it seems like at Heller it has become ordinary to have extraordinary professors. To them we are indebted. Sometimes this intense program got so tight that if you had a friend somewhere sleeping 8 hours per night, you would wish you could ask them to transfer 2 of those hours to your deficit sleeping account, but each time together with their teaching assistants, the professors assisted us through. Their excellence is a challenge to emulate, let alone surpass. The knowledge merged with the diverse experience that we brought and shared together from different places -- Ukraine to Nigeria, China to California. Together the knowledge and experiences shared, have molded us into the competent cadres whom we are today, ready for action.

We may not be able to end maternal mortality in Ethiopia. Neither can we promise to bring road traffic accidents to zero in Lebanon. Indeed we may not, in our life time, eradicate all the pertinent health problems in Afghanistan, Iraq, USA, Rwanda, Vietnam or other country that we come from. But we believe and we have the courage, stamina and determination that this cohort will make a significant difference.

Ladies and gentleman, it is an honor for me to give this speech representing the MS class of 2010. I am as sad as I am happy on this a memorable day, reminiscent of the historical day I took off from Africa.

My beloved colleagues, faculty, staff, ladies and gentleman, we meet to part and we part to meet. Someday, somewhere, somehow, somewhat, we will meet again.

It is a sad (somber) moment to be taking separate ways today, after having built professional and even emotional ties with faculty, staff and fellow colleagues in this fast paced program. In the twinkle of an eye, it's all over before we know it. We wish we had had more time together. Isn`t it funny how we come seeking for degrees but are a bit reluctant to just receive them and leave happily when they are finally awarded to us.  But the fact that they call it Commencement reminds us that we were only being set on a trajectory and now is the time to take off. This passing moment marks the beginning of a new enduring season in which we will remain united by the common purpose that we so passionately and professionally embraced.

I love you all.

Thank you.