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Ezike to Knox Graduates: You Have Earned Your Spot at the Table

Jun 7, 2021

The head of the Illinois Department of Public Health told Knox College graduates to write their own stories – and make those stories Pulitzer Prize winners.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike said she was born and raised in south central Los Angeles. She said she never dreamed that she might one day be a state’s public health director and build a team to lead that state through a global pandemic.

“That’s now a chapter of my story. But it’s not the end of my story,” she said. “When this pandemic ends there will be a new chapter to be written. And it just keeps going.”

Ezike said no chapters should be deleted or left out. She said they all lead to the present moment. And she noted some of the best insights are gained during some of life’s roughest patches.

She also told students they should not allow anyone to rewrite their character. “The only author of this Pulitzer Prize winning story is you.” And she noted that among the seniors receiving degrees Saturday:

  • 35% are first-generation college graduates
  • 40% are people of color
  • Some (she did not give a percentage) are “a testimony to the power of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy”

“Don’t think for one second that your story is any less important because you’re from a certain neighborhood or because your parents weren’t this or that. Society may try to label you as ‘other’ or ‘an outsider’ based on your sex or gender, your race, your sexual orientation, your socio-economic status, your country of origin, your language, your disability,” she said.

“Whatever your ‘other’ is, embrace it! You do belong and you have earned your spot at the table. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”

Ezike was not present at the ceremonies for the approximately 230 graduating students “…because of this COVID adventure we find ourselves on.” She recorded a video for the morning and afternoon ceremonies, and said she found it “nerve-wracking” as she prepared her remarks.

“This is totally different from COVID press conferences,” she said. “It’s quite daunting to be asked to speak to young people with so much talent, so much energy and determination, and to try to say something that will capture the excitement of the moment virtually.”

Ezike also congratulated the college’s administration and faculty for staying true to Knox’s mission “despite the social, political, and health upheaval we all bore witness to in the past year,” and she noted college’s roots.

“Given the 184-year history of Knox, a school founded by abolitionists and standing for what is right even when it isn’t popular- I’ve learned a little lesson or two about that – you have made the practice of following that arc of the moral universe that Dr. King spoke of one of the trademark building blocks of this storied institution,” she said.

She also congratulated the parents of graduates and said she hoped to be in their shoes one day.

Knox presented Ezike with an honorary Doctor of Science degree.

The school also presented an honorary Doctor of Science degree to Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, senior group leader at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus and a founding member of the neuronal cell biology program at Janelia.

And the school presented an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree to Thomas Rivett-Carnac, co-Founder of Global Optimism and an architect of the U.N. Paris Climate Agreement.

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