What We Should Always Remember About This Day

Elorm Fred Avakame on how to keep the mission of medicine in focus

Standing here today, I can’t help but think about my interview day, the very first time I stood on this Quad. The people were smiling, the grass was perfectly manicured, the sun was shining off the marble all around me, and I was terrified. I knew that there was no chance I’d get in to school here—I was just glad to have seen this place with my own two eyes.

Then, I remember the day we got those acceptance emails. My brain absolutely short-circuited. I put my head in my hands, and it was like the only words I knew how to say were, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I know that most of us had similar freak-outs that day because you’ve told me those stories over the years.

We were in such complete shock over having been accepted because we didn’t truly believe we’d get into HMS. But here we are as graduates. We didn’t just make it in—we made it out!

As I think about what this day means, what I want us to think about every time we reminisce about this day, and what I want us to remember every time we see our diploma on the wall, is this: We are capable of more than we could ever imagine. It was true on the day we came to interview here, and it’s still true today. We—each of us as individuals, and together as a graduating class—are capable of more than we can imagine right now.

Read more about HMS/HSDM Commencement and Class Day here.

Now, don’t take that the wrong way. I don’t mean that we should walk around thinking that we alone have the answers to all the world’s problems. We don’t. But in a world that is so quick to tell us that the ideas we have are too grand, that the plans we have are too bold, that the visions we have are just unrealistic, I want us to remind ourselves today that they’re not. I want us to hold on to our ability to dream.

"We can do more for others than we can imagine."

Think about all we’ve accomplished in the past few years. Imagine all the things we’ll accomplish in the next several decades! We’re here to celebrate all that we’ve done, but I’m excited to know that we can do so much more.

But even as we celebrate, let us remember why we’re here. We became doctors not just for our own sake, but to make other people’s lives better. We didn’t do this for the respect or the prestige. Our mission is to serve. There is great power in our platform. But I once heard it said that with great power comes great responsibility. You see, it’s important not just that we do well, but that we do good. When I say we can do more than we can even imagine, what I really mean is that we can do more for others than we can imagine.

Somewhere, there are young people who won’t stay young forever. As they grow old, they’ll need doctors who can care for their bodies and their souls. Looking out across this class, I’m so proud to say that those doctors are on the way. Somewhere, there are children suffering with rare conditions. They need scientists who will crack the code of their disease and find treatments that bring healing. Those scientists are on the way.

Across this world there are communities struggling with poor health, who need servants that will combine their clinical expertise with their training in business, public health, public policy, working to solve the challenges those communities face. To them I say, ‘Hold on! Those servants are on the way!’

Now, I don’t mean to pretend that the journeys ahead of us will be easy. They won’t be. There will be challenges we can’t even anticipate. We will make mistakes, personal and professional. I’ve made my fair share, and I’m not done making them. But even when the bumps in the road feel like boulders, remember that the mission is worth it.

Some of our visions may not come to fruition in our lifetimes. I’m reminded of the first black students who came to HMS to study medicine—Daniel Laing, Isaac Snowden, Martin Delany. In 1851, during their first year, their admission was revoked upon a vote by their classmates and faculty. They never lived to see a day like today, when 16 black students are graduating from HMS and some of them are even standing at this podium. You may not see the baton cross the finish line, but run your leg of the race and run it hard. Remember that the mission is worth it.

I’ll close by saying that I’m sharing these words on this day but they’re not for this day. They’re for a day to come—somewhere down the road, when the obstacles feel too great and the doubt starts to creep in, when you wonder to yourself whether you bit off more than you can chew and were crazy for trying. When that day comes—and it will—take a moment, close your eyes and think back to today, this day, the day that we achieved our wildest dreams and became the Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine Class of 2018.

Thank you. God bless you. And congratulations.

Adapted from a speech given by HMS graduate Elorm Fred Avakame at Class Day on May 24, 2018.