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Virginia Tech holds commencement for first undergraduate public health class

Published: May. 11, 2022 at 9:33 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - As the sun set on Lane Stadium Wednesday night, a group of Virginia Tech students did something no other undergraduate Hokie had done.

“I’d like to address the first- yes. The first graduating class of the undergraduate public health program here at the Virginia Polytechnoic Institute and State University,” said student speaker and graduate Maya Rakotoariso.

It’s a program that didn’t exist when these students began their college journey but demonstrated its importance over the last two years.

“You didn’t have a crystal ball four years ago when you chose this path, but you hit the lottery for choosing the field that’s proven itself essential for the past two plus years,” noted commencement speaker and New River Valley Health District Director Dr. Noelle Bissell.

“Since I was pre-med, I thought ‘okay, I’m going to be a doctor’, and my parents were like ‘okay, sounds great!’,” recalls Rakotoariso. “Then I was like ‘never mind, I’m public health,’ and they were like ‘are you sure?’ and then the pandemic hit and it showed all the opportunities within the field. My parents aren’t scared anymore that I’m not going to find a job.”

“Here at Virginia Tech especially, they’re really focused on something called One Health, which is the combination of human health, animal health and environmental health,” explains public health graduate Abigail Dunahoo. “They really teach us to advocate for all three of those things. It’s also a lot of health promotion and health equity. They really want to teach us how to fight health disparities when we go out into the world.”

A world just beginning to see the other side of a global pandemic.

“Maybe before the pandemic, no one really knew what public health was, but now everyone knows what public health is, especially now,” Dunahoo continues. “Everyone’s eyes are going to be on us as public health professionals going forward, so it’s really important that we carry ourselves well and we promote public health in the best way that we can.”

“As a woman of color, I’m not really advocated for in the healthcare field and I want to be the change that I want to see,” Rakotoariso explains. “Through my public health degree I hope I can do that.”

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