The stage in Gaston Hall during the School of Health Commencement ceremony
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School of Health Graduates Challenged to Pursue Careers That Make a Difference at Commencement Ceremony

(May 20, 2024) — The School of Health Class of 2024 persevered through the fear, anxiety and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic and at their commencement ceremony, speakers expressed their excitement over what the graduates will accomplish next.

“You adapted and you worked hard and you made it,” said Toyin Ajayi, MD, the School of Health’s commencement speaker, at the May 18 ceremony in Gaston Hall. “But you must also know that this degree is only the first step.”

Dean King speaks from a podium

Christopher King, PhD, MHSc

Christopher King, PhD, MHSc, dean of the School of Health, spoke with pride about all of the graduates, including 93 undergraduate students who received Bachelor of Science degrees in human science, health care management and policy, and global health, as well as 11 graduate students who earned Master of Science degrees in health systems administration.

“As I look at you this afternoon, I am in awe,” King said. “I am inspired by your grit, your determination, your resilience and your passion, all for the sake of advancing health and well-being.”

“In the spirit of cura personalis, I am confident that you’ll be the ones who will help us make a long overdue societal shift from one that is centered on ill-being to one that prioritizes well-being,” he added. “As the second class to graduate from the School of Health, the pressure is on. But we know you will make us proud.”

The Importance of Trust

As the CEO and co-founder of Cityblock Health, Ajayi leads the first value-based comprehensive health care provider and technology platform that serves low-income populations with Medicaid with complex physical and psychosocial needs. At the commencement ceremony, she received the honorary degree of doctor of science for her dedication to caring for underserved communities

Dean King and President DeGioia place a symbolic hood over Toyin Ajayi's shoulders

School of Health Dean Christopher King, PhD, MHSc, and Georgetown President John J. DeGioia presented Toyin Ajayi, MD, with an honorary doctor of science degree.

Ajayi spoke to the graduates about the importance of developing trust among those in the communities one wishes to serve, sharing a story from her experience as a fourth-year medical student in Sierra Leone. When a middle-aged woman came to the hospital after collapsing at the market, Ajayi asked nurses to help her treat the patient. But the nurses huddled in a corner while the patient’s condition deteriorated.

Ajayi began to panic and tried to overcome the language barrier by gesticulating furiously. A nurse gently approached her and said, “It’s okay, doctor. This isn’t the kind of illness you know how to treat. She’s been possessed and needs a different medicine.”

Watching in shock as people started shaking the patient and chanting while another person brought in a white chicken, “I realized I was watching an attempted exorcism right there,” Ajayi said. When the patient died, the sound of chanting was replaced by wailing.

Afterward, Ajayi felt anger toward the nurses for not helping her treat the patient. In her early years as a practicing physician, she found herself joining her colleagues in describing patients who didn’t follow their recommendations as “noncompliant.”

Toyin Ajayi speaks from a podium

Toyin Ajayi, MD

Over time, Ajayi realized that the nurses in Sierra Leone and her “noncompliant” patients didn’t do what she wanted them to do for the same reason: They didn’t understand or trust each other. That realization prompted Ajayi to spend more time listening to her patients.

Over conversations with patients at kitchen tables and on long walks, she has learned about their lives, families, aspirations and challenges, including the times they have felt stigmatized, mistreated, ignored and dismissed by their health care providers.

“My patients were saying, loudly and explicitly, it doesn’t matter how much knowledge you have, how many degrees or publications, I will not do as you say unless I trust you; you cannot impact me until you have earned the right to do so; and there is no trust without respect,” Ajayi said.

“We, as scientists and scholars committed to building health care communities, must earn the trust of those who we seek to serve,” she said. “Spend this next chapter figuring out how to be trustworthy, and hopefully, one day, trusted. If you do this right, you will deliver on a promise of real impact on the most existential and important challenges of our lifetime.

“Good luck, my friends,” Ajayi added. “We’re counting on you.”

Watch This Year’s Commencement Ceremony

Highlights from Commencement 2024

Story: Kat Zambon, GUMC Communications
All Images: Phil Humnicky, Georgetown University

Commencement 2024