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‘It’s your turn,’ CDC director Rochelle Walensky tells Northeastern graduates

Photo by Billie Weiss/Northeastern University

Ever-present in this year’s Commencement ceremonies was celebration of accomplishing one particular thing: persisting through the COVID-19 pandemic. Mortarboards were joined by face masks and Northeastern graduates sat six feet from each other across Fenway Park on Saturday. 

“Pause, look around at this stadium, and celebrate this moment,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the graduates, their families and friends at the historic baseball stadium and watching online. “This is a pivotal moment for each of you,” she said. “You become who you are because of pivotal moments in your education and your training.”

Clockwise from top left: Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker; Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Boston Mayor Kim Janey; Patrick O. Brown, CEO and founder of Impossible Foods. Photos by Matthew Modoono, Billie Weiss and Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

In her Commencement address, Walensky told graduates, “it is your turn to move the world in new directions, discover new heights, and drive innovation.” 

The jubilant celebration at Fenway was unlike any Commencement ceremonies before. The graduates had not only completed their collegiate coursework, they had done so in the face of unanticipated obstacles.

“Virtually everything about what you expected your college experience to be was turned upside down in March of 2020, and has pretty much stayed that way ever since,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, told the graduates. He specifically congratulated them for “working their way through what was a profoundly difficult year because of the pandemic.”

That sentiment was echoed by Kim Janey, acting mayor of the City of Boston. “Your perseverance and resilience in completing your co-ops and your coursework under extremely difficult circumstances should be applauded,” she said. “Your commitment to staying safe helped our city weather the storm.”

Both Walensky and fellow Commencement speaker Patrick O. Brown, CEO and founder of Impossible Foods, charged the graduates with continuing to be global citizens as they embark on their careers. 

“Our society and our planet are facing many difficult problems and we all need to recognize that nobody owns the job of solving them any more than you do,” Brown said in his Commencement address to the graduates.

Walensky encouraged the graduates to be undaunted in the face of obstacles. Sitting on her desk at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, she said, is a plaque. It says, simply, “hard things are hard.”

“It’s true,” the CDC director said. “The challenges we face are often hard. But we can do hard things. You can do hard things.”

Walensky is no stranger to “hard things” or “pivotal moments” in her career, she said. While training as a medical doctor in the 1990s, Walensky faced a “hospital full of patients dying of AIDS with no treatment yet available and hope running thin for doctors and patients alike.” That sparked something in Walensky and she shifted her career path to focus on infectious diseases. Since then, Walensky’s research on viruses has helped advance the national and global response to HIV/AIDS. Now, she helms the nation’s public health protection agency as it battles the global health crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Walensky urged the graduates to be “the change agents we need.” Systemic inequities that have “led to unacceptable disparities in our society” are well-documented, she said. “Our job together is to fix it,” Walensky said. “You can make a difference one person at a time, one act at a time.”

It was a similar realization that led Brown to start the experiment that became Impossible Foods, a company that makes what are traditionally meat and dairy products out of plants instead.

Brown said he was increasingly concerned about the threat of climate change and the global loss of biodiversity. But, he told the graduates, “I subconsciously assumed that somebody else, some benevolent entity more qualified than me, was responsible for saving us from all these disasters. Our government, maybe, the U.N., NGOs, Santa Claus, who knows,” he said, throwing up his hands. “I could do my small part, but this enormous planetary-scale problem was surely not my problem to solve.”

“It finally dawned on me that actually nobody else out there was solving these problems. There is no global climate tsar or benevolent protector to save us from these disasters. I’m even starting to have my doubts about Santa Claus,” Brown joked. So, he said, he took a risk and used his expertise as a biochemist to devise plant-based products, such as the Impossible Burger, that would mimic the flavors of popular meat products and reduce the demand for animal meat.

Brown spoke about the advantages of being a beginner and an outsider, able to look at a problem with fresh eyes, “unbiased by the prevailing assumptions, and see things that an expert ignores.” It is with that mindset that he approached founding Impossible Foods, and he urged the graduates to be undeterred by lack of experience. 

“The worst thing you can do is to look for reasons not to try,” he said. “It’s not somebody else’s job. It’s your opportunity.”

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