Reminders for World Changers

Reminders for World Changers

Fall 2020

Deborah Birx

This excerpt is from a commencement speech that Dr. Deborah Birx, a graduate of Houghton College (Houghton, New York), gave at Houghton’s 2020 virtual commencement ceremony.

I want to congratulate all of the seniors who are graduating today from all over the United States from your homes. Thank you for the work that you did for all your years in college, and thank you for achieving this moment. … That work is going to be important throughout your life. As I’ve worked in my career, it’s really been very important to understand that it’s people that make programs, not just resources and dollars. If you surround yourself with good people, and you’re part of a good people team, you’ll be able to achieve all of your goals and make the country a better place. So thank you for your futures and what you’ll bring in service to America.

Picking up on that [reminder that] people make programs, remember: Nothing is beneath you. There’s no phone call, no piece that needs to be [copied], no letter that needs to be mailed that you can’t do yourself. I think sometimes we wait for others to complete those tasks, but even today, if something needs to be done and I don’t have what I need, I do that task. No task will ever be beneath you as you move through life. Bringing that can-do attitude will be critical every step of the way.

Be open to opportunities. At Houghton College, I was a chemistry and math major. … And then I decided to apply to medical school. Even though I hadn’t really been in that [pre-med] track, the faculty of Houghton College supported me in making that career change and going to medical school. Following medical school, I was open to internal medicine or pediatrics. I ended up doing internal medicine and then clinical immunology and infectious diseases. … Throughout that time, I was open to where people thought I was needed and where I could provide input and support to whatever projects there were. In my 40 years in government, I’ve only applied for a job once. That’s what it really takes sometimes — being open to opportunities. Even if it seems like a deviation from your primary path, be open to what could happen — and will happen — when you allow others to influence your life. Listen to friends, to family, and to yourself about where you should be going.

Finally, always stay true to your moral self. This has been incredibly important throughout my career. Sometimes that shortcut seems like a good idea, particularly at 11 o’clock at night. But you need to stay true to what it really takes to be consistent, to be data driven, to have that strong foundation of what you believe is right, and to stay on that pathway throughout your career. …

I believe in each and every one of you. Thank you for the careers and the talent you’re going to bring to the United States. … We’re going through a difficult time in our nation right now. We’ve had to confront a new and novel pandemic. But the true strength of Americans is their ingenuity, talent, and abilities. Having you come at this moment to help America move through this very difficult time is extraordinary.

Deborah Birx is ambassador-at-large, U.S. Global Aids coordinator, and the White House coronavirus response coordinator.