PhD Commencement Speaker: Olawale Olaleye, PhD’22

May 22, 2022

Olawale OlaleyeThe dean, the faculty and staff of the Heller School, our dear family and friends, good morning! I want to say a big congratulations to my colleagues, the PhD graduating class. We made it through some of the most challenging times in our history and so I salute your courage and resilience. I feel extremely honored to be delivering these remarks on your behalf.

I start by thanking those who have supported us over the years. Our advisors, mentors and dissertation committees. I want to thank our family and friends for enduring this grueling marathon with us. 

It is indeed an honor to be part of the Heller School. One of the great things about this place is the People. Heller does a really good job attracting very passionate people from various disciplines who are interested in making our world a better place – this is the one thing all the colleagues I spoke to while preparing this speech shared.  And this was indeed my story – I came to the U.S. from Nigeria as a pharmacist to pursue an MBA and then went on to work as a health management consultant. While doing that, I observed the potential to improve patient care by addressing the well-being of frontline workers and decided to seek ways to do that. I remember walking into the Heller School for the first time, almost five years ago, without any research or teaching experience. All I came with were simplistic notions about making the world a better place. My experience at Heller is a testament to what is possible when you have a little idea that is shaped by wonderful friends, nurtured by great mentors, and supported by an institution that is committed to you. This journey was tough sometimes and like most of us, I struggled with impostor syndrome. However, my time here has transformed my simplistic ideas and given me a more nuanced understanding of social change. It has also transformed me into a more confident researcher. The support in this building made the long and tough journey a little easier, and for this, I am grateful.

Someone asked me the other day what my biggest takeaway from the PhD program was. A very tough question and I guess we will need to get used to being asked tough questions as PhDs. But here is what I think – the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. And so I want to ask more questions, and attempt to find answers to them. I think that is my biggest takeaway. We need to keep asking the hard question that brought us here and more. Over the last several years we have endured trying times and learned how systemic challenges have led to distinctly poorer outcomes for those who are from disadvantaged groups and communities. My dissertation research sheds light on how the intersection of minority identities can exacerbate "invisible work" – what that means is, your identities can determine how your work is recognized, appreciated and valued. This is extremely unjust, dangerous with detrimental outcomes for workers. But I do know that to overcome these challenges requires me, you, all of us making conscious choices, asking tough questions and seeking to find the answers. 

So as we move on from one glorious journey of learning and onto others, I hope each of us will do our part in helping the places we work, play and live be more equitable for everyone. That means I have to consciously choose who I will be, how I will work with, talk to, interact with and create space for those whose voices are often marginalized. This mantra will guide my way of being going forward. I ask you to reflect on this – what principles will guide you in determining who and how you will be?

I will spend the next couple years as a postdoctoral fellow at Heller, helping health systems across the US think about how to harness differences in the workplace as a resource rather than as an impediment. With funding from the Josiah Macy Foundation, I will be asking the question, How can we relate across differences? Because we need to. I will also be working as a human capital consultant, supporting health systems to be better.

To you my colleagues, I hope that the road ahead rises to challenge us. May the work inspire us and may those with whom we share our spaces be the beneficiaries!

Thank you and I wish you all the best.