Video: Dr. Nirav Shah’s 2022 Commencement Address

With a bonhomie well-suited to the occasion, with sharp wit that made topical points, and with empathetic insight into the human experience, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, delivered the Commencement Address at Bates College on May 29, 2022.

I feel like we should start a day of celebration by doing something celebratory, which is…taking a selfie. If I could ask everyone to stand up a second and stretch, and while we’re doing that, I’m going to cue up my phone to take the Bates College Commencement selfie. OK, let’s do that.

You all looked great. I’m going to put that on Twitter later; if you don’t want to be on Twitter let me know now. I’ll blur out your face.

Thank you, President Spencer. It is an honor to be a part of Bates’ 156th Commencement and join you, the faculty, staff, parents, and the random old people who come to these things, as we celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2022.

Especially this year — the first “normal” Commencement ceremony since 2019. I don’t know what happened during those intervening years. Some guy must have suggested that you change things around. What a jerk!

I am also grateful that you and the Board of Trustees have chosen to award me with a Doctor of Science degree. That’s extremely meaningful,and I’m very excited to start putting that to use.

It’s also such a pleasure to share the stage today with other Bates honorands, whom you just heard about.

Graduates, none of you will remember this speech. Which, frankly, takes a lot of pressure off of me. 

We all like to think we got here on our own. But in reality, none of us gets to where we are on our own. When I graduated from college, I thought I had it all figured out. I was independent. I was a one-man wolf pack. But the truth is, I was basically a house cat — completely dependent on others, yet fully convinced of my own independence. 

We all have someone who helped us along the way, so I want to take a moment to recognize the parents and family members of the graduates who are here today.

Just remember: If you like what I have to say today, my name is “Nirav Shah.” If you don’t like what I have to say, just remember that my name is “Sanjay Gupta.”

Graduates, I ask that you also thank them for supporting you for the last four years. And also to remember that commencements are like weddings: they go on for a long time but they are pretty much for your family.

Many parents in the audience – especially if they are not residents of Maine – are looking at me right now and wondering the same thing. Who is this guy? Why is he here? Was the travel budget for Commencement speakers cut? The best they could do is a guy from down the street?

Just remember: If you like what I have to say today, my name is “Nirav Shah.” If you don’t like what I have to say, just remember that my name is “Sanjay Gupta.”

Many months ago, when President Spencer asked me to deliver this year’s Commencement Address, I pledged that I would take the honor seriously and commit to the careful craft of writing a speech in the same manner that many of that many of you, the graduates, committed to your senior thesis or capstone project. 

So last night, after downing a bunch of Red Bulls and literally reaching the end of Twitter, I started writing.

There is an uncanny correlation between speaking at the Bates Commencement and then dying 30 to 50 years later. I need to have an epidemiologist at the Maine CDC look at this. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the pandemic, it is that correlation always equals causation. 

I looked at the list of prior Bates Commencement speakers. Coretta Scott King, may she rest in peace; former Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, may she RIP; anti-apartheid leader Bishop Desmond Tutu, may he RIP; renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, may he RIP; civil rights icon, the Rep. John Lewis, may he RIP.

When I looked at that list, my first thought was, “Man, why do all the preceding Bates Commencement speakers end up dead?” What is up with that? There is an uncanny correlation between speaking at the Bates Commencement and then dying 30 to 50 years later.

I need to have an epidemiologist at the Maine CDC look at this. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the pandemic, it is that correlation always equals causation. 

It’s meaningful being here today. It was three years ago, almost to the day, that my father died. He had a progressive illness, so his death, while painful, was not unexpected.

I think that he would have liked Maine. The mountains, the ocean, the solitude. One of my regrets is that he never got to see Maine. And he never got to know the Maine that my family and I have come to know, to love. 

He would have enjoyed being here today, too, seeing all of you graduate. Hearing me speak with you. It would have made him proud. 

Just like many of you, my dad came a long way. He went from picking mangoes in rural India to medical school. When he came to the U.S. in the 1970s, he worked as a busboy at the Gold Coin restaurant in Chicago, while he studied for his exams.

On the day he passed his exams, he walked in to work and sat down at a table. His boss barked at him and asked why he wasn’t working. My dad replied, proudly, that he was a doctor now and he wanted a cup of coffee. 

One of my life’s privileges was to spend the last five months of his life with him and my mother down in Houston, Texas. One day, while driving back from a medical appointment, my dad and I were stuck in traffic.

Above us was a burned out, old railway bridge over the interstate. And on that bridge, there was graffiti. It wasn’t just everyday graffiti. It was graffiti with meaning. There, on the rusted metal, someone had spray painted two words. 

The two words were elegant in their simplicity, compelling in their directness, and poetic in their brevity. Two words that struck me and have stuck with me and that I’ve spent the last three years thinking about. 

Be Someone. Be…Someone.

That’s it. Two words that capture how my dad himself lived his life. How I try to live my life. And how, today, I’d like to urge you how to live your lives.

Like any good poetry, as Ms. Giovanni can tell us, the phrase admits many interpretations. Are you supposed to be someone? Or to be someone?

Today I offer you three ways that my father exemplified those words. Through humility, through humanity, and through humor.

Let’s start with humility, which is at the heart of Being Someone.

For me, humility comes down to saying the three hardest words in the English language: “I don’t know.”

But in the face of a global pandemic, no one has a monopoly on knowledge or expertise. And yet so many are reluctant to say that they don’t know the answer to something. Instead, they just talk. 

I used to think that being intelligent, being someone, involved having all the answers. Not just some of the answers. But all the answers. This had a few implications: It led me to think that intelligence came from accumulating the largest warehouse of knowledge. Of minutiae, of trivia.

For me, being smart — being someone — was like having the only pin at a balloon party. And achievement was walking around popping everyone else’s balloons. 

Frankly, this approach led me to being tremendously unlikeable. I really should have changed my middle name to, “Well, Actually.”

But in the face of a global pandemic, no one has a monopoly on knowledge or expertise. And yet so many are reluctant to say that they don’t know the answer to something. Instead, they just talk. 

Please, graduates, don’t do that. If someone asks you what time it is, do not tell them how to build a clock. If you don’t know what time it is, just tell them that.

The second quality of Being Someone that my father exemplified was humanity.

I always marveled at my father’s ability to communicate with people who had an entirely different worldview from him. Rather than dismissing those who asked him skeptical questions, he treated them with humanity.

COVID has brought the challenges of misinformation to the forefront. And when we think about things like life-saving vaccines, the stakes are literally life and death.

But here’s the problem: We often treat skeptics like a high school debater would. We rattle off a litany of reasons why they are wrong, trying to pop as many balloons as possible with our pin. Thing is, in the history of recorded thought, not a single mind has ever been changed via that approach.

Even worse, we sometimes condescend those who question whether COVID-19 vaccines are effective. We treat those with different beliefs as not just incorrect, but as ignorant. And we wrongly dehumanize them, or anyone who doesn’t see the world our way.

Please, graduates, don’t do that.

I know that vaccines work because I am part of a “chain of trust” with the people who have concluded so:.

I’ve been asked numerous times how I know that the COVID vaccines are effective? After all, I didn’t perform the studies myself. So how can I know that the vaccines are doing their job?

Rather than overwhelming the skeptic with a bunch of journal articles or dismissing them outright, I am honest with them. I know that vaccines work because I am part of a “chain of trust” with the people who have concluded so: scientists, physicians, statisticians. I trust the ultimate conclusion because I trust each of the links in the chain.

Skeptics are often part of a different chain of trust, a chain whose links comprise lived experiences and relationships, not necessarily data in scientific journals. They are susceptible to misinformation because they don’t belong to the same chain of trust that scientists, that many of us do.

So what to do? First, do not dehumanize those who disagree. Rather, recognize that their skepticism may stem from being part of a different chain of trust.

Second, Be Someone who builds trust: Ask why they believe what they do? And what evidence might change their mind?

The thing is, trust happens one conversation at a time. It is like a bank account, and you may have to make multiple deposits in the account before you can start making withdrawals.

As my dad saw it, the third quality of Being Someone was humor. It’s a quality he kept through the end. He learned his English-language sense of humor from an old TV show called M*A*S*H. I was just chatting with my team about my favorite scene from M*A*S*H, describing war. I urge everyone to take a look at that.

M*A*S*H was about an army field hospital in the Korean War. 

We need the levity that humor brings. Laughter during dark days doesn’t diminish the weight of the shadows; it just makes them a little bit easier to bear.

What I marveled at was his ability to bring humor into situations where I would have least expected to find it. Even in the room of a dying patient and their family, my dad always found a way to lighten the heaviest of moods.

That’s important because you are allowed to laugh. These days, humor is considered fraught in some circles. The world is dark, and there are those who suggest that a well-timed joke is not always appropriate. I don’t see it that way. 

Indeed, it’s just the opposite. We need the levity that humor brings. Laughter during dark days doesn’t diminish the weight of the shadows; it just makes them a little bit easier to bear.

That’s because the human brain is a magnificent thing. We can be happy and sad at the same time. You can hold grief and joy in your hands at the same moment. Humor is what makes us human.

And humor is important, especially now. When I think of each of you, you all came into consciousness while the world was still reeling from 9/11, into a world punctuated by terrorism, unending gun violence, economic recessions, environmental catastrophe, and now, a global pandemic. 

Tom Brokaw hailed the people who survived the Depression and World War II as the Greatest Generation, not for who they were, but for what they overcame. I don’t know what your generation will be called, but one thing is clear: The world has handed you much more than your share.

Your generation has seen so much  and responded with wit, creativity, righteous anger, and a determination to take the reality you’ve been handed and make it better. Even through COVID, you managed to flourish under absurd circumstances. For many of you, junior year abroad turned into junior year abridged.

But your humility, your humanity, and your humor have helped you Be Someone who is about to graduate from Bates College. Many of you will go on to remarkable careers: in business, arts, and government. The rest of you will become podcasters.

No matter where you go, what you do, you are likely to be one of the smartest people in any room that you are in. The first thing you should do is find a bigger room. But the second is to remember the tools that Bates has given you. 

Bates has prepared you to choose to be anyone, any time, in any place. But my ask is far simpler: that you choose to Be Someone. Choose to carry the qualities of humility, humanity, and humor with you wherever you go next. 

Congratulations to the Bates College Class of 2022! Thank you for having me today. Thank you for honoring me today. Thank you for humoring me today. Go out there and Be Someone.

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