Dean Colleen Barry speaks to graduates of the EMHA and EMPA programs at the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy. The ceremony in Willard Straight Hall marked an historic first for the Brooks School.

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Graduates of Brooks School executive programs celebrated as “thinkers, leaders and change agents”

The Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy held an historic graduation ceremony on Dec. 17, awarding degrees to the first class of Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) students as well as the third class of Executive Master of Health Administration (EMHA) students.

Both programs are intended for mid-career professionals and developed in partnership with eCornell. They feature blended learning over 18 months, with most courses taught online along with brief visits to the Ithaca campus and other locations.

“We have trained you to be thinkers and leaders and change agents,” said Brooks School Dean Colleen Barry after she warmly congratulated the graduates. “We expect that you will work to improve people’s lives, to reduce suffering in the world and to make the world a more equitable, more prosperous, and healthier place. And, in doing so, you will have lived up to the investment made in you by your faculty here at Cornell and by your family and friends at home and here in this room who have supported you.”

Students representing each graduating class eloquently expressed their gratitude for that support, whether by faculty and staff or by family members and co-workers. They also thanked their classmates.

“We have connected as teammates, friends, confidantes, and champions,” said Jennifer Tolkoff, speaking on behalf of the EMHA graduates. “A unique aspect of learning predominately via Zoom is the context in which you get to know your cohort. We got to see each other’s kids and family members and pets sneak onto camera. When people would forget to mute, we heard them navigate their work, talk to their partners about dinner, negotiate with their kids to remain quiet. Many may think that learning via Zoom is a barrier to getting to know your classmates. I believe it helped us get to know one another and who we are outside of school even better.”

Each graduate’s story is unique. They are of a variety of ages, come from around the world and many have well-established careers. Mary Papamarkou, for example, has held leadership positions in financial services for 25 years and is a member of the Rutgers University Board of Trustees.  

“This program is everything I had hoped for and more,” she said, speaking on behalf of the EMPA graduates. “It has given me the tools to be a better board member and a better global citizen. I have been challenged and my brain has been stretched. I like school so much more now than when I was an undergrad. I’ve made friends that I hope will last a lifetime.”

The graduates leave Cornell with more than memories. Academic leaders of each program underscored the responsibilities that come with the degrees.

“We need you more than ever,” said Matthew Hall, a demographer and the EMPA program director. “Disruptive times require disruptive thinkers. And I know as you embark on the next stages of your careers, we can count on you to make those positive disruptions in ways that will make the world healthier, better, and stronger.”

That sentiment was echoed by health care economist and EMHA program director Sean Nicholson: “Health care clearly needs competent and visionary leaders who have the tools to achieve their vision and the compassion to make a difference at the level of a patient and the consumer.”

The ceremony was held in the Memorial Room at Willard Straight Hall and livestreamed and recorded by CornellCast for those who couldn’t attend in person. It was highlighted by the awarding of degrees to 39 EMHA graduates and 19 EMPA graduates.

The ceremony also featured the presentation of the EMHA Student Service Awards to Tolkoff and Joydeep Ganguly and the EMPA Student Service Award to Ashlie Bryant. She is the co-founder of 3Strands Global Foundation, an internationally focused non-profit that supports survivors of trafficking.

Executive Director of MPA Programs Thomas O’Toole said Bryant and her classmates have demonstrated the perseverance shown by Pearl S. Buck, Barbara McClintock, and Toni Morrison, all Nobel Prize winners and Cornellians.  

“I challenge you all as graduates to work tirelessly in service to the tradition of grit that these great Cornell alumni left behind as ambassadors of the Cornell commitment to doing the greatest good,” O’Toole said.

While Buck and Morrison were famed novelists, EMHA Executive Director Mariya Thompson referenced another storyteller in her charge to the graduates: “I can’t think of a more appropriate quote than this one from Dr. Seuss about how you’ve risen to the challenge of the upside-down, topsy-turvy last two years. ‘You’re off to great places, today is your day. Your mountain is waiting so get on your way.’”

Jim Hanchett is assistant dean of communications for the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

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