More than 470 Union College graduates heard from one of their own Sunday while enjoying the 227th commencement ceremony in person and in 80-degree weather.
Dr. Sue Goldie, a 1984 graduate of the school, and winner of a prestigious “genius” fellowship, told graduates to “find the moral conviction to use the foundation established here to imagine the possibilities of tomorrow, and make them a reality.”
A physician, medical researcher and the Roger Irving Lee Professor of Public Health at Harvard University, Goldie’s research has focused on viruses of global health importance, cancer prevention, reproductive health and maternal mortality.
In 2005, she received a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, known as a “genius grant,” in recognition of her work.
About a decade after Goldie graduated from Union College, she embarked on a little-known area of study at the time that applied “decision science” to public health.
Decision science uses evidence synthesis and mathematical modeling to identify strategies and policies that improve health and health equity.
Among the litany of the sound advice imparted by Goldie as she received an honorary doctorate of science degree from Union College: Find good mentors. Better yet, build a mentorship team, she said.
A major area of Goldie’s research was sparked by a mentor.
Goldie proposed what she said was “a not-so-great, not-really-that-interesting research idea,” when her mentor pulled out a stack of cards from his desk and tossed them across the table.
It was a collection of questions he considered important, but didn’t have time to pursue as research.
“My work on HPV and cervical cancer in more than 70 countries across 20 years started with a random card I picked up from that table,” Goldie said.
Speaking about her time at Union, which included teaching martial arts part time, Goldie had fun at her own expense, remembering a calculus professor who she said was convinced “very deep down” that she had a capability to learn math, a subject she’s since come to love.
Another professor, in chemistry, “discretely” handed Goldie a slip of paper with the name of a counselor after she performed poorly on an exam, she said.
College President David Harris said that when thinking about who could best address the graduating class, the school’s first to have more than 30% of its time impacted by a global pandemic, and to experience significant online learning, he tapped Goldie because of her background in both areas.
Goldie told the Union College graduates that they had likely gained insights during the last year about the value of innovation in teaching.
“But just imagine,” she said, “if you were born in a place where higher education was only available to you in no other way but digitally.
“You, too, are likely to be faced with opportunities that mean putting a collective pause in front of your individual goals, at least temporarily,” Goldie said. “Embrace those opportunities. They may lead to the most important work you will ever do.”
From a global perspective, the toll of COVID-19 has been almost unimaginable in various ways and across all of society, Goldie said. It’s one of many 21st Century global challenges, she suggested.
“There are other emerging infectious diseases with pandemic potential,” she said. “We are facing climate change, migration, crisis displacement. What is common to all of these, in addition to their impact on health, is their relevance to every sector of society. And the reality that no one nation can address them alone.”
The good news, she continued, is that there’s an equal set of opportunities — advances in knowledge from biomedical science to material science, new technologies, “some of which are game changers, like the cell phone, or mRNA vaccines.”
Some graduates might directly work on those global challenges, while others could contribute to creating new global opportunities, Goldie said.
“But the challenge for all of us is how do we level the playing field? Because right now, the most vulnerable in society bear a disproportionate burden of the risks, and the best off disproportionately benefit from those opportunities. In this regard, each and every one of you has a role to play, regardless of your ultimate profession,” she said.
Goldie told the graduates to remember other epidemics such as opioid addiction, gun violence, misinformation that are “all made more complex by the unprecedented divisions between us.”
“My message to you: Take these challenges on with courage and conviction. You will need to lean forward, seek the truth, speak up and fight for what you believe in. And you will also need to find ways to listen, and even empathize with those you really disagree with.”
In a video message, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer told the graduates: “Our nation is overcoming this pandemic, and we will need your help and your courage to rebuild our country even stronger than it was before. We must make our society better. And we know we will, because you are our future leaders and we have faith in you.”
Student commencement speaker Nimra Shabbir said she took a long, frightening 15-hour flight from her native Pakistan not knowing anyone, and with doubts she’d settle in the U.S. from a different culture.
Shabbir said she’s never felt more at home than during her graduation speech.
She spoke of her class’ resilience in the face of the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has affected the world in ways we could not even imagine, yet each and every member of this community stood tall in the face of adversity, even on the gloomiest of days on campus,” she said.
After receiving his degree, marketing major Danny Cannon of Chappaqua said of the impact of the pandemic: “It was sad, the last year and a half or so, the way everything’s been. But in a way, once the restrictions started to loosen up, you almost appreciated everything more towards the end. It was a little bittersweet, but it is what it is.”
Bound for law school at the University of Miami, Cannon said he would most remember about Union: “Meeting so many different people, getting so many different experiences and just engaging with different people and different courses and hearing so many different perspectives, is something that I hadn’t had up until this point.”
Rong “Angie” Chen of China said she made the 15-hour flight from her native China because she sought a liberal arts school that offered an electrical engineering major.
Chen, who graduated cum laude, and is bound for graduate school at Columbia University, said she will most remember the fraternity and sorority parties. She said Union’s first-class offerings would make “everything very memorable.”
Chemist, educator and advocate Geraldine Richard also received an honorary doctorate in science from the college.
Richard was recognized for her “transformational discoveries” about the behavior of water molecules and interfaces with water and air that have been vital in areas as oil-spill response and air-pollution remediation.