Text of remarks by Dr. Deborah Birx

Publication Date

Thank you Dr. LoGiudice for that very kind introduction. To Dr. LoGiudice and her fellow faculty members who have guided these graduates for four inspiring years; to President and Mrs. Ainlay; Chairman of the Board of Trustees Mark Walsh, board member Dr. Estelle Cooke-Sampson; to the family and friends who have supported these fine graduates – especially to the Dads on this Father’s Day; to the 2013-2014 Union College NCAA Division I Ice Hockey Champs; and most of all to the class of 2014, CONGRATULATIONS!!

I am deeply honored to be with you today. At this college – deeply steeped in history, at this college that brings together the pursuit of knowledge with the commitment to service to the community and the world, thank you.

As I was finishing my Internal Medicine residency and fellowship in Clinical Immunology at Walter Reed in the early 1980s, we were confronted with an unknown disease that was killing young soldier. A mystery. A shocking turn of events when I personally thought medicine could do anything – it was high tech – it could diagnosis and treat anything – cure anything. Yet, we were powerless. Since that moment, I was compelled by the need to do something for those suffering from HIV/AIDS and struck by the deep compassion of those suffering. AIDS ADVOCATES – fought for treatment while holding the hands of those dying – knowing that was their fate also.

I am now at the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator charged with running the program that I hope some of you are familiar with – the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief – more commonly known as PEPFAR. PEPFAR is the single largest contribution that the United States has made to fighting a single disease – it is our government’s translation of US taxpayer dollars into compassion and hope for those in despair and dying across the globe.

In the late 90’s when I first began working in East Africa, AIDS was truly wiping out a generation of individuals and fraying the very fabric of the societies. Hospitals were completely overwhelmed by the massive volume of dying people. Patients routinely shared a bed while others were lying, dying, on the floor.

A third of mothers in southern Africa were infected with HIV and transmitting the virus to their children, dying from AIDS, and leaving families without mothers and fathers. Death was everywhere. The only business expanding were the coffin builders.

And nothing was being done to save them, no low income country could afford to save them. They were not getting the antiretroviral treatment that was available in the United States. The treatment that cost 20-25K/year in the US. For millions and millions, HIV infection was truly a death sentence.

Then, came PEPAR and other donors, stakeholders, multilateral organizations and civil society – and HIV infection is no longer a death sentence in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the developing world. PEPFAR and the Global Fund brought hope to those suffering through comprehensive care, treatment and prevention of HIV.

The contribution of PEPFAR has been enormous. Started by President Bush and expanded by President Obama, PEPFAR supported 6.7 million people on treatment in fiscal year 2013. That’s almost a four-fold increase since President Obama took office.

And thanks to PEPFAR, more than 1 million, 240 thousand babies have been born HIV-free. A truly astonishing figure.

Saving lives has transformed economies around the globe with adults returning to full work productivity with treatment. AND what began as saving lives and restoring hope has changed the very course of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The pandemic you all have known since birth. You never lived in a world without pandemic HIV/AIDS – but we believe this world is possible with continued focus. Already, the number of new infections is down by 50 percent in sub-Saharan from the peak in the late 90s.

PEPFAR produces results. Period.

And at times when Washington appears so polarized this program has had strong bipartisan support of the White House, the State Department and Congress. Global AIDS issues have transcended not only Administrations, they have transcended the political divide. PEPFAR has had the support of Secretary Rice, Secretary Clinton and now Secretary Kerry, who also was the father of the original legislation. It was a signature program of President Bush’s and President Obama has overseen the growth of PEPFAR from an emergency program to a sustainable program led by shared responsibility.

PEPFAR is a true reflection of America’s values. It is what is good about America – and what makes people around the world FEEL good about America.

I could go on for hours about PEPFAR and the fight against AIDS, but we are here to talk about the class of 2014. So, today, I want to share with you my Top Ten List of Lessons to remember as you leave the halls of Union College:

Lesson Number Ten: Learn to Collate

  • Don’t laugh, I served in the military, the last thing you want to do is hand a General a document where page 10 is where page 30 should be!
  • Which leads me to…

Nine: Nothing is Beneath You

  • Seriously, why you should definitely learn to collate, the real message that I want to leave you with is that NOTHING IS BENEATH YOU.
  • ZIZZI’s.
  • You want your boss and colleagues to know that you are a team player.
  • So, if you’ve got to staple, collate and file – do so with a smile.

Eight: Every Decision is Not Life Defining

  • Yes, this is a hard one.
  • It is pounded into you for four years that this is it – your last time to be free – because we then throw you out to the real world where everything is cut throat and decisions will impact you for the rest of your life.
  • Well, that’s just not true. You can make one bad decision about a job and, turn, around and make a good one three months later.
  • Every decision is actually an opportunity – sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always an opportunity.

Seven: Everyone Has an Opinion – Listen…

  • If there is one thing that you have learned in college is that everyone has an opinion.
  • After all, college is that one unique time in your life where sharing opinions is constantly encouraged.
  • My advice is to always be open to hearing what someone has to say. Why? Because you should never stop learning.
  • And even if that person is challenging you, there may be a grain of truth that you can take away to grow as a person.

Six: Believe in the Possible Even if All Say it’s Impossible :

  • You have the whole world ahead of you. Now is probably the most untarnished time for you to believe in the possible.
  • I urge you to not let this spirit die. Constantly work to find your optimism and aim high.
  • In my generation, President Kennedy saying that we were going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade captured this optimism. Can you imagine? We were still using slide rules – yes slide rulers but we did it.

Five: The Internet Does Not Hold the Truth – You Do

  • Now, I’m probably committing blasphemy for some – but get off the Internet for a few minutes and allow yourself to think and process the information and reject the “data” that doesn’t resonate.
  • And you will discover a good deal about yourself – and your ability to think and learn.

Four: Always go forward, never straight

  • Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with going straight ahead, it just keeps you from totally exploring what’s around you.
  • It keeps you from discovering new things.
  • It keeps you from learning who you are and what you have to offer the world.

Three: Be Compassionate and Passionate

  • The Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
  • Showing compassion can be done in little ways, but it should become a mindset as it is with Union College.
  • And be passionate about what you do.

Two: Be willing to fail spectacularly

  • Willingness to fail allows for innovation and breakthroughs.
  • Some of the world’s greatest leaders had experienced failure on a grand scheme.
  • Steve Jobs was fired from his own company.
  • Thai Trial.
  • Don’t be afraid of failing – ever.
  • It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound reinvention.”
  • You often have to fail miserably to succeed brilliantly.

Lesson Number One: Always Nurture Your Family and Friends

  • Nurturing Your Family and Friends is Number One because they are the ones who will always be there for you.
  • When you fail miserably, they will be there to help put you back on your feet.
  • When you can’t find your optimism, they’ll be there to tell you it’s right in front of your face.
  • And, yes, when you collate badly, they’ll find the staple remover and help you start all over!

While this is your big day, as it should be, take a moment to thank your families and friends for supporting you during these four monumental years. They have watched you go from semi-terrified teens leaving home to proud women and men facing the future head on. Treasure this day – always.

Thank you – and congratulations again to the Class of 2014!