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U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Highlights SPH Commencement

Rachel Levine speaks at SPH's Commencement ceremony.

“Public health is the center of the universe right now,” said Admiral Rachel L. Levine, MD, assistant secretary for health with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and head of the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, while addressing the graduating Class of 2023 at the UIC School of Public Health Commencement on Thursday, May 4 at the Isadore and Sadie Dorin Forum.

As this year’s commencement speaker, Levine shared her life path with graduates, from attending medical school in Louisiana to a career in academic medicine to her current roles with the federal government.

“I get to wake up every day with the mission of helping people,” Levine said. “My roles allow me to help people across our nation by helping to set public health policy.”

She encouraged graduates to remember the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, illustrating the importance of adaptability and flexibility, the intersection of physical and mental health and the need for public health professionals to engage in self-care.

“The pandemic has reminded us of a fundamental truth – we need each other,” Levine said. “Our happiness and our very survival depend upon our connections to one another and our community, and it’s that spirit of community that makes our country great.”

Levine said the field of public health needs outside-the-box thinking to serve those most in need but said she felt confident looking out at the graduates committed to protecting the nation’s health.

“I encourage you to take the unexpected roads – you’re ready for both the expected and the unexpected,” Levine said. “In your time at UIC, you have learned the needs for compassion, sensitivity and empathy, the importance of patience and curiosity, the need to be calm and confident, and the need to innovate.”

“Only you can know the possibilities of your future,” Levine said.

SPH Dean Wayne H. Giles, MD, MS and university leaders reminded graduates that their time at UIC was indelibly shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Over the past three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear we need a strong and well-educated public health workforce, and it is a privilege to be charged with the development of the next generation of public health workers,” Giles said.

“The SPH Class of 2023 is certain to remember your years of public health education for your entire lives,” said Robert Barish, MD, vice chancellor for health affairs at UIC. “You have certainly learned the important roles of public health leaders, researchers and health professionals play in helping to support our communities.”

“In choosing UIC, you learned in a community that reflects the health equity challenges experienced by so many people throughout the world,” said Timothy L. Killeen, PhD, president of the University of Illinois system. “You learned the theory here, and you experienced the reality and the challenges.”

Student and alumni speakers outlined the key challenges Class of 2023 graduates will tackle as they launch careers in public health research, practice and leadership.

“I’m increasingly asked, what is public health, what can you do with public health, what are you going to do with your public health degree?” said Abigail Suleman, the Alan W. Donaldson award winner from the Class of 2023. “Public health is everything – we can educate, change policy, organize programs, implement guidelines, partner with communities, connect people with the reproductive healthcare they deserve, fight climate change, make healthcare free, combat racism, xenophobia and homophobia and decolonize data.”

“Your legacy at UIC and the School of Public Health doesn’t end but will continue throughout your life course and career,” said Katherine Koo, BA in Public Health ’17 and a member of the SPH Alumni Council. “Especially in the face of converging epidemics and dismantling the roots of systemic racism in our country, we as public health professionals are being called to lead in these trials and tribulations.”