Campus News

Deep Shah’s spring 2008 commencement address

Deep Shah's spring 2008 commencement address

Before my seven-minutes begin, I want to walk you through one of my post-graduation worries. I will recount to you one of my recurring nightmares – an event that could take place as I travel on my path to doctor-hood. Doctor-hood…if that’s not officially a word, it definitely should be. The dream goes something like this:

Natalia Ivanov is a 77-year-old housekeeper from Russia -your everyday “Babushka.” Ms. Ivanov was rushed into the emergency room this morning after suffering a heart attack. Moments ago, she was placed under my care; she is now my patient – my responsibility. In addition to heart problems, Ms. Ivanov endures diabetes and high blood pressure; has no records or patient history; speaks Russian, Chechen, and German but no English; and, of course, lacks health insurance. And – my goodness – she is wearing a Gators shirt with jean shorts. The complexities of managing her health overwhelm me. It is my first week as a medical student on the hospital floors. I am terrified. Alone, I am simply incapable of treating her. I need help.

Justice Thomas, President Adams, Mummy, Papa, families, friends, faculty, and Class of 2008, this scenario is indeed one of my most feared: discovering myself inadequate in fighting the world’s fight. It is based on an experience I had as a health policy intern in New York City two summers ago. As a doctor, I will undoubtedly encounter difficult cases like Ms. Ivanov time and time again. What strikes me as so significant, though, is how the progress of our society makes problems across the planet even more complex, and how we can only overcome them by community-led efforts rather than one-man crusades. Consider Ms. Ivanov. Globalization brought her to an American hospital, McDonald’s contributed to her diabetes and high blood pressure and eventually the heart attack, and our broken healthcare system managed to leave her out of the equation. No one person can remedy all of these issues. Also, I know not everyone here would classify McD’s global supremacy as “progress,” but I’m pretty sure the dollar menu is one of the 21st century’s most noteworthy achievements.

A daunting set of complex, global challenges has accompanied the advancement of civilization. This applies to every one of us, whether entering medicine, education, law, or the arts. Whose responsibility, though, is it to overcome these hurdles?

Well, duh – like every other problem, the burden should fall on our parents. And why not? They should be old hats at it by now, having dutifully footed every bill and guided us through all of our problems for the past twenty-two years, or twenty-three, or twenty-four, or even twenty-five for those of us on our first, second, or third victory lap in Athens.

No, the reality is that the privilege of conquering these obstacles is ours. Accomplishing this requires one essential asset – a broadened worldview, coupled with a commitment to community and faith in our peers. We are fortunate, for this has been the take home message of our four years at UGA: cultivate your passion, work among an extended family of fellow Dawgs, and – together – leave our mark. Regardless of where each of us falls on the socioeconomic ladder at this University, we must be cognizant of how we compare to the rest of the world, and even the rest of America. We have been bestowed the privilege of education and thereby the awareness of the greater needs for people everywhere. The disparities in wealth and – more importantly – disparities in the opportunity for progress are shocking and embarrassing. They manifest themselves in communities in the marshes of Mississippi Delta just as easily as in the rice patties of Western China.

The fact that education is a privilege, and the most necessary ingredient in attacking injustice, never meant much to me until middle school. No political speech or NBC “Did You Know?” advertisement persuaded me to revere houses of learning. But in sixth grade, I boarded a plane to visit my mother’s home in Gujarat, India. My sisters and I set foot into her house – one room, no larger than about twenty by fifteen feet with dirt floors and cement walls. My uncle recounted with laughter how he, my mom, four other siblings, and two parents slept on the ground every night and arranged their mattresses in a zig-zag pattern; the multi-purpose space also served as a living area and dining room. My mom was fortunate, though, for the support of her family and the chance to learn motivated her to improve the circumstances in which she found herself. The unforgiving truth, though, is that not everyone gets those kind of breaks.

We must begin by making the choice to keep these inequities in mind and make them a priority as we enter the real world. Making choices, though, is luckily no new task for the Class of 2008. We have been making choices – and darn good ones at that – since the day we were born. Consider a few landmark events for thought:

1) Age four – Game Boy or Sega Genesis? 6 letters sum up how we came down on this one: T-E-T-R-I-S. Tetris, duh. Game Boy wins.

2) The year is now 1993. Boy Meets World hits the scene. You love it, but Full House has been bumped from the TGIF lineup to make room for Cory and Topanga. Are you for or against TGIF? Topanaga turns thirteen. Game over. We love TGIF.

3) 1995 – the Braves win the World Series. David Justice knocks a solo shot in the sixth inning. Do we love or hate Justice after he just criticized Atlanta fans for being fair-weather? Well, on this one, we cop out and embrace some guy named Marquis Grissom instead.

4) 1998 – I’ll just leave it at a simple song lyric, “…hit me baby one more time…” And when the choice between Britney or Christina came around, we all side with Britney. See? Even the Class of 2008 makes mistakes.

5) The year of the millennium – it’s New Year’s Eve 2000. Oh wait, we are only 15. The night is anti-climactic.

6) 2004 – UGA or everywhere else. Where will you attend college? You visit campus, peruse Herty Field, dine at Transmet, and cross the Sanford Bridge. You’re sold. And your run-in with J. Michael Floyd seals the deal. Let the big dawg eat!

We came to college aware of our abilities to make judicious choices. How then, do we apply these to solving the world’s most pressing matters with the knowledge, skills, and relationships we have developed at the University of Georgia.

My worldview has evolved in ways I never anticipated, particularly during my last few semesters in college. The unique experiences we have had at Georgia have accelerated the pace of our growth as individuals. For many of us, time abroad has been instrumental in personal development. Our journeys to Tanzania, Costa Rica, Italy, and even Antarctica have been deepened and enhanced by our times at home. The kids we take to Gym Dog meets through Big Brother and Big Sister in Athens do not seem so different from those to whom we teach basic English in the blistering heat of an Jordanian summer.

I have found that everyone, and I truly mean everyone desires the same thing – an opportunity. An opportunity to love, to build a family, and to create a happy life. We, as future leaders and engaged citizens, leave this city endowed with the responsibility to provide others the opportunities we have been given.

In the summer of 2005, I traveled to Costa Rica with a group of UGA students to volunteer at a children’s clinic in La Carpio, described as the “Harlem” of this beautiful country; La Carpio is predominantly a district of Nicaraguan refugees. Nearby was a neighborhood for battered women where I met Daniela, a twenty-year-old single mother from Nicaragua. On the surface, she seemed just like me. She wore jeans (not Apple Bottoms), Reeboks (no straps), and a smile. Though our interactions were limited, I soon learned that this smile was nothing more than a social convention. She soon expressed her greatest frustration in a single sentence, “He sobrevivido solamente – nunca vivido.” I have only survived – never lived. Daniela spent seven days a week washing windows and folding laundry simply to support a bare bones life of rice, beans, and shelter. She never graduated from high school, and her community rejected her.

This is the greatest crime of society today. That so much of the world cannot dare to imagine going through life the way we have, do, and will. Even at this young age, we have already touched on the most profound themes of human life to some degree – birth, death, love, laughter, and tragedy. We lived life and college to their fullest. We went to the Grill at 2am and waited outside two hours for those fries and feta drip. We went to Ramsey, climbed the rock wall, lifted weights, played racquetball…and then realized…it’s only September. Spring Break isn’t for another six months. Back to the dining halls.

We have been encouraged by our parents, granted second chances by our professors, and lived in a relatively stress-free world. We don’t live in daily fear of car bombings, famine, or drought…well, nevermind, there goes my entire point.

In all seriousness, it’s up to us to provide that life, that mentality, and that freedom to everyone. Contemporary leaders, ranging from Bill Gates to Jimmy Cater, are dedicating their lives to these causes now – in their twilight. We can start now, though, and we should. We’ve been fortunate enough to receive exposure to these issues earlier in life than generations past. We have no excuse for turning a blind eye to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the millions dying from preventable diseases, and particularly those who are so preoccupied surviving life, like Daniela, that they never have a chance to live it and enjoy the world around them. The most promising truth, though, is that we can change the fate of others less privileged – if we work together.

We have built many valuable relationships during this special period. Remember you and Sandra? Snelling lady who always welcomes you with a warm smile and enthusiastic greeting. Or the special friendship you share with freshman chemistry lab TA…the one who Then there’s that unspoken bond between you and the obnoxious freshman in the bleachers behind you at Sanford. All you want to smack upside the head, but secretly admire and think, “That was me a few years. Wait, that’s still me.” From our classroom buddies to our downtown compadres to the mentors we have grown to admire and emulate – we, as a community, have indeed built a sense of trust and compassion that will allow us to serve our world in the ways we believe require attention.

Can one person alone make a difference? Sure. Especially if his name is Knowshon. But can 6,000 strong make an ever greater difference? I am absolutely positive. The point of this speech is not to make you fear the world or its problems, but rather to remind you of the way we have overcome every other challenge we have faced – by working together and trusting in each another.

This attitude has already resulted in so many amazing achievements. We have blacked out the Tigers, captured an SEC Championship, and owned a Sugar Bowl over our four years. We have walked and danced for thousands of hours to raise millions of dollars for terminally ill children and HIV/AIDS and cancer research. We have lobbied to make our campus more environmentally friendly. We have won national titles in gymnastics, tennis, swimming, and golf…and even a conference trophy in men’s basketball. We have established non-profits in Namibia and Ghana. We have taught English as a second language to Athens’ undocumented population and mentored its forgotten children. Together, we have already had an impact.

We have begun our lifelong journeys as Dawgs devoted to each other and the communities in which we live.

If we remember the knowledge and values we have acquired at Georgia, WE can heal Ms. Ivanaov. My fears were dead-on; alone, I am but a small part in the process of healing a patient like her. The reality is that her problems are not only medical – they are social, legal, financial, and personal. Well-being and providing it to others is a group task. It requires a community like the one we’ve been so lucky to be a part of for these four years. With so many of us dedicated to a cause, I cannot be convinced that anything is too complex for us to solve. No matter how many medical illnesses she suffers, how little English she speaks, or how much Gator gear she wears – no Ms. Ivanov is too complicated for the Class of 2008.

Wherever the future takes us, we must remember that the impact we have as part of a community is so much more powerful than the one we have alone. And by that same token, our success must me measured in units of community rather than units of self.

Whether as UGA alum, parents, or professionals, we will always work as part of a team. But alas, I know that no team will ever be as special as the one I have been privileged to be a part of for the past four years with all of you. Perhaps my colleagues will be brilliant, kind, compassionate, funny, and all those other effusive adjectives. But there will always be one distinguishing factor. At any sign of success or the single signal of hope – I doubt that they will join with me in the one way that I know how to celebrate and express joy – ::dawg bark::

Again, congratulations to everyone!