MPH candidate to urge fellow grads to treat crises as opportunities to help others

In an address at the Graduate School’s Virtual Degree Ceremony, master’s degree speaker Abdullah Shihipar will urge his classmates to use their degrees in ways that advance all of society, not just themselves.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A few years ago, with the opioid epidemic raging in his hometown of Toronto and elsewhere across North America, Abdullah Shihipar decided he wanted to find a way to confront the crisis. So he applied to a master’s program at Brown University’s School of Public Health to study strategies for combating the negative effects of drug use.

Two years later — with the opioid epidemic continuing to take a toll and in the midst of a decidedly different public health crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic — Shihipar is set to earn his degree.

In an address to be delivered at the Brown Graduate School’s Virtual Degree Conferral ceremony on Sunday, May 24, he’ll remind his fellow graduates that crises like these underscore the need for people to use their education to make a positive difference for others. 

“Brown is an elite institution that grants you access to certain spaces, access to power,” Shihipar said. “With that access comes responsibility. For me, the pandemic makes it even more clear that with these degrees and this knowledge, we should be trying not only to advance ourselves, but also to advance society.”

Shihipar says that engaging with the people and challenges around him was the hallmark of his experience at Brown. While he had great professors and took interesting classes, the most impactful part of his experience came outside the classroom, working in the lab and in the field. Much of that work was with Brandon Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology whose research focuses on interventions that improve the health of people who use drugs. Working with Marshall, Shihipar got a chance to do in-person interviews with individuals impacted by drug use disorders in pursuit of strategies that might improve their health.

“I feel like getting firsthand experience and knowledge from people who are having that experience was very powerful and left an impression on me,” he said. “It’s one thing to read about it in papers; it’s another thing to hear what people who are actually going through it have to say.”

There’s an immense responsibility and opportunity right now for people to use their degrees in a way that helps others.

Abdullah Shihipar 2020 MPH graduate

Shihipar also used his talents as a writer to help his colleagues to spread the word about their research and the issues that are important to them. Before and during his time at Brown, Shihipar published opinion essays in the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere. And as a communications scholar at the School of Public Health, Shihipar helped fellow students and faculty to place opinion pieces of their own, and to communicate complex research in a way that non-experts can follow. 

That was another illustration, Shihipar says, of how one can benefit from helping others.

“I got a lot of experience talking to faculty members and students about their research and studies,” he said. “I learned a lot about fields that I wasn’t necessarily familiar with.”

Shihipar’s master’s thesis combined his interests in news media and overdose prevention. For his research, he tracked media coverage of law enforcement officers and others who reported adverse health effects after having contact with fentanyl, a powerful opioid often used to lace heroin or cocaine. In some cases, people reported overdose symptoms after merely touching the drug or contacting people who had taken it. There’s no medical evidence that such encounters could produce any negative health effects, Shihipar says. But news media often report overdoses resulting from these encounters without verifying that an overdose has actually taken place.

“It has led, in some localities, to people being charged with assault if an officer overdoses,” Shihipar said. “It’s a concern because it can lead to enforcement or bystanders not wanting to administer aid or intervene in an overdose because they think it’s dangerous.”

And now more than ever, amid both the opioid crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, the world needs more people who are unafraid to reach out and help each other, Shihipar says. He sees plenty of hopeful signs that people are indeed still willing to help.

“A lot of people are responding with acts of solidarity and looking out for each other,” he said. “There are plenty of examples of people engaged in dropping off food for other people, making masks for other people, connecting with seniors from a distance or writing letters to people. That’s what gives me hope is that a lot of people are willing to help each other.”

Shihipar hopes that his fellow graduates will take those examples to heart as they leave Brown. 

“No one goes through graduate school alone,” he said. “Given that so many people have supported you, your job when you go out into the world is to then become part of other people's support systems. There’s an immense responsibility and opportunity right now for people to use their degrees in a way that helps others.”