There are certain words which people hope to hear when a Commencement speaker is described. Their selections are intended to guide and inspire college graduates as they transition into the next chapter of their lives.
SUNY Fredonia believes it has invited just such a person with its selection of Dr. Sarah Ramirez as its keynote speaker for its 2014 Commencement on May 17 at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., in the Steele Hall Arena.
Fredonia's President Virginia Horvath and Senior Class President Patrick Kennedy both describe Dr. Ramirez' story as "inspiring" - as well as "motivational," "commendable," "generous" and "unique." Her choices and the difference she's making in her community make her all the more compelling, they noted, adding that her career has been laced with dedication, perseverance, surprise and passion. Commencement organizers are eager to share her inspirational story with graduates and their families.
Dr. Sarah Ramirez
Ramirez grew up in the rural town of Pixley, Calif. She earned her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Modern Thought and Literature, an interdisciplinary graduate program where she combined the History of Public Health, Medical Anthropology and Cultural Studies. While working on her doctoral program she also completed a Master of Public Health degree in Epidemiology from Columbia University. The unifying thread in her education and research was focused on the importance of the social context for understanding health and health disparities. Having completed her MPH she became Tulare County's (Calif.) epidemiologist, and began monitoring the county's health status and found discouraging rates of diabetes, obesity and food insecurity.
At this time, she and her husband, David Terrel, kept looking to their hometown, Pixley, less than 50 miles away where the conditions and resources were worse. They knew they wanted to do more, but they also knew that committing to that type of project required that they uproot themselves and return to their hometown. Having just created BeHealthy Tulare with their gleaning project, they moved back to Pixley. The goal of BeHealthy Tulare is to create an environment that makes equitable health possible for everyone by broadening access to local, sustainable, health-promoting resources, knowledge and skills. Fulfilling the mission "to cultivate equity, hope, and compassion through the practice of service," they host gardens, fitness classes, gleaning groups, and cooking clubs to educate and promote healthy living even in their impoverished hometown.
President Horvath heard Ramirez's story on National Public Radio and immediately felt it tied closely to Fredonia's mission, which states that the university, "educates, challenges, and inspires students to become skilled, connected, creative, and responsible global citizens and professionals." She quickly emailed Ramirez, explaining how she had heard her story and was hoping she might be interested in speaking at Fredonia's Commencement.
President Horvath said that Ramirez was surprised and honored to be the invited Commencement speaker. When asked what her speaking fee was, Ramirez said that she did not want to be paid; she simply wanted a donation to be made to BeHealthy Tulare.
"When told she would have the chance to individually talk to students, Dr. Ramirez was thrilled," says Dr. Horvath. Dr. Ramirez noted she is "curious about having an informal connection with the students to discuss how these soon-to-be graduates want to use their educations and passions to make a difference in the world. " She added, "I think it's really possible to make many of our interests - whether that's technology, computer science, education, literacy, et cetera, to support healthier communities and social justice."
Dr. Ramirez and Terrel's choice to use their skills and education to help others in their community meant living a more modest lifestyle and redefining "success." Noting their true partnership, Dr. Ramirez added, "The main message I want to suggest that we find those individuals who share similar passions and commitments, because these allies will help support and inspire us even when times are challenging. I am very blessed to have found this ally in David, someone who knows exactly where I'm coming from and why I want to do what I do. He also understands it because he has lived it." He will be joining her when she visits Fredonia.
President Horvath believes that Ramirez's story will inspire Fredonia's graduates. "She continues to use her education for good," she explained. "Regardless of your major, your career is likely to change. It is about working to solve a real-world problem that you care about, and that is what Dr. Ramirez is doing."
Kennedy felt similarly to Dr. Horvath. "Her story is about not limiting yourself. Dr. Ramirez is the embodiment of that," Kennedy says. "Her story is proof that you should not limit yourself to anything. You are in charge of your life. Make your own success story."
President Horvath admires Ramirez's work ethic. "Her story challenges people to think about what difference they could be making if they looked at their own communities and the skills and knowledge they could share," adds Dr. Horvath. "I know that the audience might not remember every word Dr. Ramirez says, but I hope that they will remember a sense of responsibility and empowerment that she inspired."