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Juniata Commencement Speaker Dares Class of 2008 to Take on Big Issues

(Posted May 12, 2008)

Michael Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, told students at the college's 2008 Commencement that no problem is too big to solve -- by incremental steps.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Michael Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University dared the 2008 graduating class at Juniata College to take on the task of finding solutions to major problems in the world, no matter how large, noting that global problems are almost always solved by incremental achievements by many individuals at the college's 130th commencement ceremony May 10.

The graduating class of 331 students was awarded bachelor of arts (103) or bachelor of science degrees (228) at the ceremony today presided over by Juniata President Thomas R. Kepple Jr.

The senior graduating class statistics include that 93 percent graduated in four years or less, 41 percent of seniors studied abroad, 70 percent completed an internship, research experience or student teaching, and 40 percent completed an individualized study program.
In addition, the college awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree to Eileen Sill, a member of Juniata's board of trustees and a former executive with RDS Insurance Agency.

Sill, a native of Altoona, Pa., was appointed to the college's board of trustees in 1999 and continues to serve on the board. She is a 1957 Juniata graduate, and her husband, Bob Sill, who graduated from Juniata in 1959, have both been active supporters of Juniata's educational mission for decades.

The Sills have been significant donors to Juniata. Their gift of $500,000 helped establish the college's Juniata College Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and the Bob and Eileen Sill Business Incubator. The Sills also contributed $500,000 to the construction of the William J. von Liebig Center for Science.

"The power of high expectations, the virtue of hard work, the value of articulate communication, the importance of honesty and adhering to core ethical principles, these lessons have seen me through every personal and professional challenge I have faced."
Michael Klag, class of 1974


Sill started her career after Juniata as an educator, teaching English at Pennsbury Senior High School in Pennsbury, Pa. from 1963 to 1983. In 1983, she became secretary-treasurer of the Sill's State Farm insurance agency in Yardley, Pa.

"The power of high expectations, the virtue of hard work, the value of articulate communication, the importance of honesty and adhering to core ethical principles, these lessons have seen me through every personal and professional challenge I have faced," Klag said in the opening of his commencement address. "I learned them not only from faculty members, but also from fellow students and, especially, from the friends I made here."

Klag, who has worked on the front lines of public health care in Africa, Brazil, and in Houston, Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, used eye-opening examples focusing on public health issues to illustrate that, while great strides have been made in medicine and public health, much more remains to be accomplished. "Although the world in many ways is a much better place than 30 years ago, big problems exist. Public health is a field that, by definition, takes on big problems," he said. He cited the lack of clean water as a seemingly simple problem that still causes disease and death for much of the world's population. He mentioned crises in health care in countries such as Uganda, Brazil and South Africa, and finally noted that the United States is not immune to disparities in health care.

Using his work in a relief shelter in the Houston Astrodome helping New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina to highlight his point, he said, "I believe that health, not just health care, is a basic human right. For that reason alone, we need to take action. A second, more selfish reason is that desperate people do desperate things. When basic human needs are not met, especially in the face of disparities, social unrest is created. The world is a smaller place. When a new infectious disease emerges in southeast China, it spreads around the world in days. It is in our self-interest to do more to help others."

Klag pointed out that his Juniata College education prepared him well to make his own contributions to society and urged the 2008 graduating class to seek ways to make their own impacts, saying, "Juniata gave me the tools to be successful. In the same way, the education you have received here gives you an incredible leg up on the world. The question for you today is: what will you do with the foundation you have built?"

"I dare you to be a leader -- to have the courage and stamina to take on big problems," he concluded. "When we start out our professional lives, there is a temptation to think that all the great achievements have been accomplished, that problems are now too big or too complex for one person to make a difference. Nothing could be further from the truth. All it takes is a willingness to work hard, perseverance and a desire to do a job well. Big problems are solved a little bit at a time."

The 2008 Senior Class Gift collected more than $15,500 (92 percent of the class contributed to the gift), which will be used to commission a statue of an eagle to grace an as-yet-to-be-determined area within the central quad of the Juniata campus.

Dr. Klag is an internationally known expert on the epidemiology and prevention of cardiovascular and kidney disease and has served as the dean of the Bloomberg School since 2005. He has been a faculty member at Johns Hopkins since 1987.

He earned a bachelor's degree from Juniata in 1974 and earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978. He completed his residency and chief residency in internal medicine at the State University of New York Upstate Medical Center. After his residencies, he served in the U.S. Public Health Service. He came to Johns Hopkins in 1984 as a fellow in general internal medicine and earned a master's degree in public health in 1987 from the school he now leads.

He received the Champion of Public Health Award in 2004 from the Tulane (University) School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. He also received the David M. Levine Excellence in Mentoring Award in 2003 from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Klag's personal research interests center on the prevention, epidemiology and treatment of hypertension and kidney disease. He also has investigated pioneering research in kidney disease, including the first study to assess the incidence of end-stage renal disease and to identify blood pressure as a risk factor for the development of kidney disease.

He is a member of numerous professional societies, including the Association of Schools of Public Health, the American Society of Nephrology, the American College of Physicians and the Society for Epidemiological Research.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.