On May 16, 2021, Vice Admiral Dr. Vivek Murthy gave a heartfelt and humble commencement address to the 331 graduate students and 208 undergraduate students who make up the UC Berkeley School of Public Health class of 2021.
Murthy, who is both the 19th and 21st surgeon general of the United States, is a passionate believer in the power of public health to change lives and communities. He’s devoted his career to tackling some of the nation’s most urgent health issues, including addiction, the lack of safe and walkable communities, and the loneliness epidemic.
He is also the vice admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, where he commands a uniformed service of 6,600 public health officers, serving the most underserved and vulnerable populations in over 800 locations domestically and abroad. This public health corps has protected the nation from Ebola and Zika and responded to the Flint water crisis, major hurricanes, and frequent health care shortages in rural communities.
At the Berkeley Public Health commencement ceremony, Murthy addressed a virtual crowd of thousands, and told the graduates that their biggest superpower as public health heroes is their love of humanity.
“I know you didn’t expect your education in public health to be disrupted by, by all things, a public health emergency,” Murthy began.
“When you got your Berkeley blue acceptance folder and made the decision to enroll in the program,” he said. “I’m guessing there were some relatives, some friends, who said, ‘Oh a degree in public health, so what are you going to do with that?’ But I think it’s safe to say now those friends and relatives understand what public health is. After more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, never have more people understood terms like herd immunity or R0 values or epidemiology.”
But Murthy acknowledged that those entrusted with monitoring and improving the health of our communities have also been targeted by those who don’t agree with public health-mandated restrictions. “The truth is, you are now seen in a way that public health professionals have never been seen before and that comes with a new level of influence and a new level of challenge. Because at the same time more people come to see public health experts as trusted, indispensable leaders, there are others who’ve made our colleagues targets of their frustration,” Murthy said. “Public health leaders have been flooded with angry calls and protests at their homes. … And just as the stress of being a public health official ramps up, so do the number and intensity of crises we face, from COVID-19 to the opioid epidemic to our growing mental health crisis. With so many crises to manage amidst so much scrutiny and strain, navigating the world of public health can seem like navigating through Dwinelle Hall: impossible.”
Murthy offered the graduates three commitments to help them navigate their chosen profession (though maybe not Dwinelle Hall): “Today, I’d like to suggest…that we anchor ourselves to three sacred commitments…that will guide us through the challenges ahead,” Murthy said.
“The first commitment is to stand up for the value of every life…. We all know that we live in a world where countless voices tell people every day that they are not valued because of the color of their skin or the people they love or the god they worship or the sound of their accent.
“But our responsibility as public health leaders is to affirm the value of every life especially in the face of such inequities. To declare the dignity of Black lives, to insist that we must stop hate against Asian Americans, to look out for children who don’t have food on the table or a safe way to get to school.
“People will accuse you of being political. When you see that the color of someone’s skin is tied to a shorter life expectancy, and you say that racial injustice is a public health issue, people will say you are political. When you see headline after headline about shootings in schools and grocery stores and you say that gun violence is a public health issue, people will say you’re being political. And when your classes are cancelled because of thick smoke from wildfires and you say climate change poses an imminent threat to our health, people will say you’re being political. But when speaking the truth is disparaged as being political, it is our responsibility to speak it anyway because that’s what it takes to stand up to the value of every human life.
“The second commitment: don’t stay in your lane. Because public health doesn’t exist in a silo, it’s the foundation of everything else in society. Public health can strengthen the fundamental building blocks of health in our communities. Today communities are stronger and healthier because public health leaders had the courage to get out of their lane and imagine a world where public health shaped our schools and our streets.
“The third commitment: put people first. At work, at home, and in all parts of your life,” Murthy said. “I want you to know right here and right now that the most important qualities you need to be a healer in society are the ones you had long before you began your public health degree: the ability to care deeply for others, to listen compassionately, and to lead with love.”
And love for and from others is what Murthy attributes his own success to, and the superpower that all those who choose a path in public health share.
“Love is the world’s oldest medicine, your ability to give and receive love is your greatest gift and your greatest power. It is what will sustain you on every step of your journey ahead”