Dr. Deborah Birx, the steady response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, graduated from western New York's Houghton College in 1976 with a degree in chemistry. As we know now, she would then change careers and later become one of the most recognizable physicians in the country. Houghton College President Shirley Mullen had the honor of introducing the distinguished guest at the Class of 2020's (virtual) commencement. It turns out that Birx had been making lasting impressions since her days as a student.
"She had already made a name for herself on campus as a gifted student and researcher," Mullen said of Dr. Birx in her introduction. "And I have heard actually from several of her professors who commented on how much she stood out even as an undergraduate here at Houghton. Even though they may not have known exactly where she would end up, they knew she was set for an amazing journey."
Birx, who still has family in upstate New York, "was looking forward to being in Houghton again and to bringing her daughters to see the campus that she has so enjoyed as a college student," Mullen explained. Yet, because of the pandemic, she had to deliver her speech from her office.
Wearing one of her signature scarfs, Dr. Birx provided both motivational and practical advice for the graduates, who she profusely congratulated. The wisest tip she gave, in my opinion, was telling her young audience not to scoff at tasks they feel are too menial or time consuming. It's a tenet that she still puts into practice.
"Nothing is beneath you," Dr. Birx said. "Even today there's no phone call, no piece that needs to be Xeroxed, no letter that needs to be mailed, that you can't do yourself. I think sometimes we wait for others to complete the task. But even today if something needs to be done and I don't have what I need to turn into someone that's above me, I do that task."
"So no task will ever be beneath you as you move through life," she emphasized. "Bringing that can do attitude will be really critical in every step of the way."
A few other tokens of advice she gave to the graduates were to be open to opportunities and allow others to influence their lives. When she decided to go to medical school after earning her chemistry and math degrees, Birx said the faculty of Houghton were extremely supportive of her. And those support systems are non-negotiable. She encouraged the students to stay in touch with their peers and call their parents, because when we struggle, our family and friends are the ones who will "hold our hand."
Finally, she told the graduates, "Always stay true to your moral self."
You can watch Dr. Birx's speech below beginning at 25:30.
By the way, Dr. Birx has been in high demand as a commencement speaker before she became a household name. Back in 2014 she delivered the keynote speech for Union College in Schenectady, New York.
It turns out she had some sound advice in that speech too.
"The internet does not hold the truth," she said. "You do."