Academic Rites of Spring

Academic Rites of Spring

During ceremonies in Ann Arbor’s historic Michigan Theater on April 27, 2007, the School of Public Health recognized 416 master’s and doctoral degree candidates. Among them was Emily Courey, who in a speech on behalf of her fellow students said, “We canjust address each emergency in a vacuum, while ignoring the underlying systems that create or fail to prevent these emergencies.”

For their efforts to end health disparities, SPH faculty members Richard Lichtenstein and Woody Neighbors received the Gene Feingold Diversity Award. Barbara Israel won the Excellence in Teaching Award, and Jeffrey Alexander the Excellence in Research Award. Hospital administrator Glenn Fosdick, MHSA ’76, took home the Distinguished Alumnus Award, and Marianne Udow, MHSA ’78, gave the ommencement address.

Across town the next morning, aspiring SPH student Abdul El-Sayed, a senior majoring in political science and biology, spoke on behalf of all UM graduates during commencement ceremonies in Michigan Stadium. Although he’d delivered sermons to Muslim students on the UM campus, El-Sayed had never before spoken before 59,000 spectators, let alone in the presence of a fellow orator by the name of Bill Clinton, this year’s commencement speaker. It didn’t faze El-Sayed. “I wanted people to come out of graduation saying Clinton’s speech was great, but that kid who spoke was also really, really good!” he said afterward.

In his address, El-Sayed told graduates, “The world needs us to ask it questions, to answer its beckoning, to show that we care, to give it mercy, compassion, and love.”

His remarks so moved Clinton that the former president paid homage to El-Sayed in his own speech. “I don’t want to embarrass your senior speaker,” Clinton said, “but I wish every person in the world who believes that we are fated to have a clash of civilizations and cannot reach across our religious divides could have heard you speak today. I just wish every person in the world could have heard you speak today.”

“He articulated in words the statement I wanted to make by being there,” El-Sayed said later. “It was one of those moments when you get chills. My parents cried.”

El-Sayed, who will start medical school at Michigan this fall and who intends to combine his MD with a PhD in social epidemiology from SPH, said Clinton asked him afterward why he’s not going into politics. El-Sayed laughed. “Abdul El-Sayed is not the most electable name,” he said, and added, “With epidemiology and medicine, there are a lot of amazing ways to fix a lot of problems.”

Two days after graduation, El-Sayed was back at work with SPH Associate Professor of Epidemiology Sandro Galea, for whom he is a research assistant. The two are studying rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among different ethnic groups in New York City in the aftermath of September 11. El-Sayed is also collaborating with Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar Craig Hadley on a study of post-9/11 birth rates in Arab-Americans in Michigan.

Of his dual career path—medicine and public health—El-Sayed says he’s interested “in healing both on the small scale and the large scale.”

Photo by Scott Galvin, UM Photo Services.

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