12:20 PM

“Expect the unexpected.” Revisiting Anthony Fauci’s 2016 commencement address

At Ohio State, Fauci emphasized lifelong learning, leadership, public service and joy in life

When Anthony Fauci delivered the commencement address to The Ohio State University’s spring class of 2016 at Ohio Stadium, he encouraged graduates to seize opportunities, prepare for lifelong learning and, perhaps most prescient, to expect the unexpected.

Fauci, a medical doctor who has been the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, delivered a concise message on May 8, 2016, focusing on issues that he had confronted over the span of his long career in medicine and public health.

He is currently exhibiting his commitment to two of these issues, leadership and public service, as a medical expert on the White House Coronavirus Task Force who appears frequently during daily briefings and on news programs to explain how infectious diseases spread and how to contain them.

For the nation’s college class of 2020, whose expectations for spring commencement ceremonies with friends and family have been upended by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there is a sad irony to one of his five major points: “You must be prepared at any moment to enter uncharted territory, to expect the unexpected. … Not every opportunity or challenge with which you will be presented or that will influence your careers and your lives will be as dramatic or draconian as a frightening infectious diseases outbreak,” he said.

“However, please believe me that the same type of unpredictable elements that I experienced in my life and in the evolution of my career in medicine and public health are going to confront you regardless of what directions your careers and your lives take.”

Ohio State will hold a virtual commencement with Apple CEO Tim Cook as speaker at noon on May 3. This virtual event does not replace a future in-person commencement ceremony, which will be scheduled at a time when it is safe. The class will be actively included in the scheduling and planning. 

Fauci was referring to the fact that in 1968, just as he was beginning a fellowship in infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. surgeon general was testifying to Congress that antibiotics, vaccines and public health measures had effectively rendered the country victorious in the fight against infectious diseases.

“Was I entering into a disappearing subspecialty?” he recalled wondering at the time. “I sort of felt like I was going to Miami to become a ski instructor.”

Since then, he has helped lead the U.S. public health response to HIV/AIDS, a 2009 H1N1 influenza global pandemic, the Ebola outbreak in 2014-15, the Zika virus in 2016-17 and now, COVID-19. Meanwhile, his field has witnessed the continual threat of emerging and re-emerging pathogens around the world.

The impact of infectious diseases on population health is one of many serious problems facing the United States, along with poverty, drug abuse, violence, health disparities, inadequate education, discrimination and despair, Fauci noted. And in a global society, he said, we cannot turn our backs on the burdens in developing nations: disease, infant mortality, starvation, gender inequality, violence against women and the reappearing specter of genocide.

“I believe sincerely that regardless of our career paths, we cannot look the other way from pressing societal issues,” he said, encouraging graduates to incorporate public service into their lives in a personal way, if not professionally.

He also reminded the graduates that even though commencement feels like it represents closing the door on student life, it actually marks the beginning of living post-college life as a perpetual student.

“The scope of what you have learned here at Ohio State and importantly what you will need to learn after you leave here is like a giant mosaic, and this mosaic of your knowledge and experiences is eternally unfinished, as it should be,” he said. “You will realize that you will never know as much as you want to or need to know, and you will find that you are participating in a dynamic process with a steep learning curve.”

Continuing the learning process does not mean college graduates are not ready to lead, even though they are young, Fauci argued. Ohio State students began the gradual process of leading, he said, by choosing to enroll at an “extraordinary institution.”

Fauci’s concluding remarks in 2016 may help the class of 2020, and all of us, look forward to better days ahead.

“I want to close with a reminder about the joyousness of life,” he said. “Allow yourselves to cultivate this as much as you do your professional accomplishments.

“You have so many other things to live for and to be happy about. Reach for them and keep the sounds of your laughter alive.”

Share this