2013 Doctoral Convocation - Perry N. Halkitis

Graduates, Families, Friends, and Colleagues:

It is a pleasure and an honor to be with you today to celebrate the conferral of these highest degrees bestowed by the academy

It also gives me an opportunity to tell you about an incredible event I attended last week.

In an auditorium in midtown Manhattan, some 500 men and women who came of age in the late 1970s and 1980s, and who firsthand experienced the devastation of AIDS, gathered for a community forum. Now middle aged, we, the AIDS Generation, came together to share our stories of sorrow and loss but also of survival and resilience.

Upon me was cast the great honor of moderating the evening, which included a panel composed of a psychologist, a public health practitioner, a blogger, an artist, and an educator—
in other words a microcosm of the disciplines of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

For 3 hours, we considered our activism, which transformed this, epidemic and collectively examined our legacy. The event was named “Is this My Beautiful Life?” For me it will always reside as one of the most beautiful nights of my life.

So why do I share this with you, our new doctors?

As I somehow managed to maintain order and decorum over the room filled with high emotions, I had few moments to pause—in one such moment I was reminded of how proud I am to be a member of the Steinhardt community—among scholars who walk the walk and who conduct science that truly exists on the hyphen of theory and practice. It is one thing to say your research is translational, it is another to actually do the work to translate it.

Also, in reliving the voices I heard last week, what has become clear to me is that the battle undertaken by my generation to fight off this deadly disease was part of something greater and more complex.

Yes, there was of course the will to live.

But at the heart of this movement and in these lived experiences was a desire to be heard, to be understood, to have one’s place in the world respected and to have access to all that was promised to us as we were growing up.

The AIDS movement was directed and defined by social justice.

For many of us at Steinhardt--researchers and practitioners--scientists and artists and media experts--the work that we undertake is at its core also directed by a social justice agenda.

The science we enact, whether in schools or hospitals, in community agencies or in more traditional labs, on the web, in a blog, or in an academic journal, is a science of social justice.

Like your mentors, you recognize that the problem we face with obesity in our country is in part directed by the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables in one’s neighborhood. You understand that theater can bring about change and empower the oppressed. You can decipher how a social network can ignite political change in a people who have been denied freedoms. You are leaders who know that two children born in the same year, in the some month, and on same day in the very same city, even within blocks of each other, may have radically different educational opportunities simply because one has less social and economic capital than the other.

As you move forward into the world, stay true to this type of work and these social justice roots. Conduct rigorous scientific research that seeks to advance the rights of all individuals and creates an equal playing field across race, ethnicity, culture, language, migration experience, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Develop programs that provide to the underserved, and which recognize and empower those who remain unheard and silenced, remembering always that a scientific program directed by an agenda of social justice is as impactful as any discovery in a physics, chemistry, or bio lab.

These are the big ideas, which will require ongoing scientific courage and a belief in the Socratic ideal that the life of exploration through science, within one self, and with regard to the social conditions of the world, is the one most worth living.

But for today take some time to celebrate what you have accomplished and above all else to honor those--loved ones, family, and friends--who have helped you reach this point.

In closing, let me state that it has been my honor to serve as Associate Dean for Research and Doctoral Studies for the last 7 years and to travel with you on part of your life’s journey. I hope that like me you will wear your Steinhardt badge proudly and spread the ideals of our school wherever life takes you.

I wish you all much success and best wishes for your beautiful lives.

Congratulations doctors!