While it may not have been the graduation ceremony that many Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Community Health Improvement (CCHI) youth had envisioned a few months ago, it nevertheless was one for the ages. Seventy-two graduating high school and college seniors gathered on Zoom—surrounded by family, friends, program staff, Mass General leadership, the Suffolk County District Attorney and a few local celebrities—to celebrate their hard work and successes.
“Being a youth scholar means always having the support of a community that values your worth as a student and a person,” said Alaina Cataldo, Loyola Maryland class of 2020, whose plans for the fall include graduate work in speech-language pathology at the MGH Institute of Health Professions.
This year’s event included participants from the MGH Youth Scholars high school and college alumni programs, the Charlestown Coalition’s Turn It Around youth group, Healthy Chelsea’s Teen Action Project and the Revere CARES Youth Health Leadership Council. The students are predominantly young people of color, and many are immigrants—from lower-resourced communities—and the first in their families to attend college.
“Never forget how special we are,” said Jason Acosta-Espinosa, a Revere High School senior headed to Dartmouth College in September, to his classmates. “We have beaten the odds, coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. We must continue to empower ourselves and advocate that black and brown lives do and always will matter.”
A special treat for the class of 2020 was a surprise appearance by New England Patriots football stars and twin brothers, Devin and Jason McCourty. Devin offered his congratulations to the students not only for graduating but “stepping up and being leaders.” Jason echoed his brother’s sentiments and added, “We are going to need you guys to step up and carry the torch and bring meaning to our country.”
Peter L. Slavin, MD, Mass General president, commended the students on finishing their studies despite the challenges of this unprecedented time. “Class of 2020, I applaud your strength, your resiliency and your demand to make the world a better place. We hope the experiences and relationships you’ve made through our Mass General youth programs have created a community that has lifted you up, supported you and expanded your horizons.”
The event’s keynote speaker was Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins who reflected on the disturbing inequities in health care access, education and the criminal justice system. She recited the names of black people who have either died or whose lives have been forever altered because of racism. Rollins concluded on a hopeful note, when she said that change has always been driven by the words and actions of young people. “Be grateful, but always remember you have something to offer.”