Date May 4, 2023
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At Commencement, Graduate School speakers will reckon with the past to build a better future

As Brown celebrates its 255th Commencement, Kathryn Thompson and Hamidou Sylla will address their peers in separate Ph.D. and master’s ceremonies on College Hill on Sunday, May 28.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Kathryn Thompson and Hamidou Sylla aren’t interested in rewriting history — they prefer to investigate the past and learn from it.

As Thompson reflects on completing her Ph.D. in health services research at Brown, she is moved by the students who paved the way for this year’s graduates, and the milestones and “firsts” still being achieved. Sylla, an aspiring policymaker earning a master of public affairs degree this year, draws inspiration from Brown’s efforts to confront its historical relationships to the slave trade and stand up to injustice and social inequities.

In keeping with Brown’s annual tradition of elevating student voices, the Graduate Student Council selected Thompson and Sylla, respectively, as this year’s graduate student speakers during Commencement.

During separate remarks at the Graduate School’s doctoral and master’s ceremonies on Sunday, May 28, the pair will address their peers, as well as thousands of family members and friends who attend in-person or watch the livestream. Thompson and Sylla will speak about the importance of honoring their predecessors while working to improve the lives of those who will follow them.

Khing Klangboonkrong, a graduate student in physics and chair of the Graduate Student Council’s nominations committee, said the group selected Thompson and Sylla because of the ways they uniquely tied the history of Brown into their own personal stories, in addition to being compelling and engaging speakers. As Commencement approaches, both students are preparing to celebrate the achievements of their classmates and call on them to effect change on the issues they are most passionate about.

“I’m focusing on us as a collective,” Thompson said. “This is a moment to reflect on what we’ve done and lived and learned and taught — which was no small feat during an entire pandemic — and celebrate all of our accomplishments.”

Kathryn Thompson: Embracing community, forging ahead

During her five years at Brown, Kathryn Thompson made a deep impact as a student leader and as a health services researcher investigating racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health outcomes. But it was the strength and support of the Brown community that kept her anchored and empowered her to thrive through her Ph.D. experience — a message she’ll highlight during Commencement in an address titled, “Legacy.”

Born in rural Mississippi and raised in central Florida, Thompson attended college and graduate school at the University of Central Florida. She earned her master’s degree in health care administration — “I thought I was going to run a hospital,” she recalled — but she wasn’t entirely fulfilled during her degree program. That’s when she began exploring “the world of research.” A visit to Brown, followed by a research internship at the University’s School of Public Health, helped shape her trajectory.

“I was immersed in the data that I work with now and I fell in love with it,” Thompson said. “I ultimately chose the Brown Ph.D. program for the people. The community that I found within my department was unmatched.”

That community quickly proved vital. During her first semester in the Ph.D. program, she suffered from “severe imposter syndrome” and desperately missed her family, so she bought a one-way ticket home.

“My Brown community rallied and reassured me as I bought a ticket back to Providence,” Thompson said, noting the importance of her conversations with Graduate School leaders including Assistant Director of Graduate Academic Diversity Maija Hallsmith and the former dean of diversity initiatives, Marlina Duncan. “I don’t think I would be here without Marlina, Maija, the Black Graduate Student Association and all the support. This community holds you up when you’re down and celebrates you, even when you don’t feel like you should celebrate yourself. Brown has been there for me for every step of the way, in more ways than I could even communicate. I’m very grateful for my time here.”

The University’s support for students from historically underrepresented backgrounds was also critical for Thompson.

“If you come from a background that’s not a line of Ph.D.s, it’s important to find like-minded people who can relate to your experience,” she said. “People who understand the frustration of not being able to focus, and the challenges of navigating a predominantly white space while trying to stay true to yourself. You have to surround yourself with a team of students, advisors and mentors, because it takes a village.”

She weathered the uncertainties and thrived at Brown, both academically and by finding her voice as a student leader. She served as president of the Graduate Student Council for two years during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and advocated for issues such as graduate student housing and addressing food insecurity.

If you come from a background that’s not a line of Ph.D.s, it’s important to find like-minded people who can relate to your experience ... You have to surround yourself with a team of students, advisors and mentors, because it takes a village.

Kathryn Thompson Class of 2023 Doctoral Commencement Speaker
Kathryn Thompson stands on an elevated walkway, looking down at the camera

“It was a lot of time, effort and meetings, but I tried to take a thoughtful approach to navigating questions and answers for the graduate student body during the pandemic, when we didn’t really know what was happening and there was no blueprint for any of it,” Thompson said. “I’m really proud of that work, and the executive board of graduate students was amazing.”

Her passion for health equity and her personal experiences were her other driving forces, stemming in part from her aunt’s preventable death.

“She passed away at a very young age in rural Mississippi, and I’m rooted in a community where you see the gaps and the disparities firsthand,” Thompson said. “I understood how research, education and access within the community can make a difference in the communities you care about, and I wanted to be part of that.”

Thompson has researched maternal outcomes and access to services for women with HIV, and she studies patient outcomes in hospital settings. Her dissertation is titled “What’s the Point of a Safety Net if it Doesn’t Catch Anyone? How Black Pregnant Women are Slipping Through the Cracks.” After graduation, Thompson will explore ways to contribute to Medicaid policy and advocate for Black maternal health policy to improve health care outcomes and access.

Thompson will call on her fellow doctoral graduates, regardless of their field of study, to communicate their scholarship broadly so it makes an impact.

“We’re tasked with going out into the world and not only doing the work, but disseminating it to multiple lay audiences,” Thompson said. “That’s how we’ll really change the world. We’re part of that change now.”

When she addresses her classmates during the doctoral ceremony on Pembroke Field, she also looks forward to celebrating the graduating class and noting trailblazing achievements, such as the first women of color earning Ph.D.s in biomedical engineering.

“It’s remarkable that we’re still making history,” Thompson said. “It’s hard to sum up a Ph.D. experience in six minutes, but I’m going to do my best to leave everyone on a good note as they begin their next chapter — because they have earned it.”

Hamidou Sylla: ‘We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines’

Hamidou — or Hammi, as he's most known — Sylla has always felt called to help others, but he remembers distinctly the moment he knew what form that mission would take

“I had this mentor who told me there were only 100 or so well-respected Black policymakers in the U.S.,” Sylla said. “And I thought, ‘You know what? I’m not sure how true it is, but I’m going to be part of that group of changemakers one day.’”

Born in the Republic of Guinea in West Africa, Sylla immigrated to the United States with his family and attended both middle and high school in the Bronx, New York. His upbringing, combined with his studies in political science and Francophone studies as an undergraduate at St. Lawrence University, inspired him to pursue a master of public affairs at Brown with a specialization in policymaking.

Political theory and the study of institutions formed the core of Sylla’s political science education. But what made the world of policy so attractive was the focus on implementation and moving the needle on issues that he’s most passionate about.

“I am mission-driven, so I know that I want to work on policies that alleviate stress from the lives of others and contribute to improving the living conditions of people in underserved communities similar to the ones that I come from,” he said. “Whichever space allows me to do that, that’s where I gravitate.”

At Brown, that space tends to be the Joukowsky Forum at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, a meeting and lecture space where Sylla delves into the intersection of policy, research and communications through “Let’s Just Talk with Hammi,” a talk show he launched as an antidote to a media landscape he saw as short-sighted and lacking nuance.

“Let’s Just Talk with Hammi” brings together scholars and experts to dissect the complexity of some of the world’s most pressing challenges and engage in discourse to propose viable solutions.

We have a responsibility to the world, to ourselves and to our future. You can decide how you want to leverage that responsibility. It’s up to us to spearhead what the future looks like, and we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines.

Hammi Sylla Class of 2023 Masters Commencement Speaker
Hammi Sylla stands in a suit, smiling toward the camera

While at Watson, he has interviewed Director of Middle East Studies Nadje Al-Ali about feminist activism in the Middle East; Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy Julia Netter and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Ellie Pavlick about how artificial intelligence will reshape society; guest speaker Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, about human rights concerns in Israel; and attorney Malika Saada Saar about technology and human rights. In another among dozens of episodes, he discussed China’s zero-COVID policy with Emory University Associate Professor of Sociology Bin Xu.

The Watson Institute, Sylla said, is a microcosm: The sheer breadth of the interviews he’s conducted there — along with the peers, faculty and high-profile guests he engages with on a daily basis — are reflection of the global community. That rich, diverse intellectual well from which Sylla draws is invaluable as he prepares for his life beyond College Hill.

“You can’t do policy alone,” Sylla said. “You have to work with people you don’t necessarily agree with. We’ve built the tenacity to be able to do that — to move beyond our differences and do great work — and I really appreciate that about my cohort.”

Sylla said his cohort and the entire Class of 2023 may have differences in backgrounds and beliefs, but they also have one crucial thing in common: “We’re now part of the Brown University story.”

The Brown University story — or one aspect of it — inspired the speech Sylla will deliver during the master’s ceremony, which will reflect on the sacrifices of his predecessors, particularly those who were victims of oppression. In learning about the University’s history, Sylla said he was moved by how Brown positioned itself at the forefront of the national conversation surrounding institutions and their own historical ties to slavery.

“Brown showed us how we can cope with a past that’s not necessarily glamorous,” he said. “It set an example for all students that shows us that we shouldn’t just drown in our histories, but learn from them.”

From participating in museum and walking tours to researching reports published by the Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, he worked closely with worked closely with American Studies graduate student Traci Picard to absorb the full truth. But Sylla knew he couldn’t condense 300 years of history into a 10-minute speech.

“I took the parts that served me, because that’s what history is all about — learning how to use it,” he said.

The role of education can’t be underestimated in building a better future, Sylla said. It’s education that teaches people about the struggles and sacrifices of those who came before, and Sylla hopes that by learning their stories, others will develop a deeper understanding of the world.

Above all, Sylla wants his classmates to know that the Brown education they’ve received equips them with the knowledge, tools and resources to effect change in their own communities and beyond.

“We have a responsibility to the world, to ourselves and to our future,” he said. “You can decide how you want to leverage that responsibility. It’s up to us to spearhead what the future looks like, and we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines.”