Wesleyan’s commencement speaker reflects on her West Virginia background, the pandemic and the importance of education

BUCKHANNON – Did you know the keynote speaker at West Virginia Wesleyan College’s graduation earlier this month was the first-ever Black woman to serve as president of the American Medical Association? What’s more, she grew up right here in West Virginia.

Dr. Patrice Harris, who took center stage at Wesleyan’s 130th Commencement Ceremony, May 9, is a Bluefield, West Virginia native, and earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master’s degree in counseling psychology and her medical degree from West Virginia University.

Elected as the president of AMA in 2019, Harris’s term is up and she is now the immediate past president of the organization. (You can read more about her background here.)

Harris has chaired the AMA Opioid Task Force since its creation in 2014, and its goals are to eliminate barriers to treatment, provide patients with affordable access to non-opioid pain care and fight the stigma faced by those with substance use disorders.

A press release from WVWC says Harris has a passion to improve the lives of children, working for children both clinically and in the advocacy arena. She is an adjunct professor in Emory University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and she continues in private practice and consults with both public and private organizations on health services delivery and emerging trends in practice and health policy.

Prior to Sunday’s graduation Harris met with My Buckhannon via Zoom from where she lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Regardless of her current home, Harris said she is a ‘proud West Virginian’ who is happy to be coming home.

“I talk about my home state all of the time and about its beauty,” Harris said. “Lately, I have also been talking about the new opportunities. I always revel in the opportunity to come back and drive through the state.”

Harris said she considers it an honor to serve as the keynote speaker for WVWC Commencement and enjoys the opportunity if offers for her to speak to young folks.

“I have a passion for children. I am a child and adolescent psychiatrist,” Harris said. “I have always had a lifelong passion for improving the lives of children. In fact, since I was in the eighth grade, I had planned to be a pediatrician, but I fell in love with psychiatry during my third-year internship.”

Harris said she was happy to impart some wisdom and insight on her journey to graduates – particularly at this time.

“There is no playbook for our young folks during this pandemic – there have been no playbooks for anyone,” she said, “but certainly, it is even a greater opportunity to hopefully be inspiring to the new graduates there at Wesleyan.”

Harris discussed some special challenges West Virginians face when it comes to health care generally.

“I chair the AMA’s Opioid Task Force, and we know West Virginia has been hit particularly hard,” Harris said. “I also know there are significant issues with chronic disease such as hypertension and diabetes. I also know that we have a considerable amount of our population who use tobacco. Certainly, those are critical health issues and those are challenges.”

Harris said she believes with challenges come opportunities.

“Those are determinates of health that contribute to health statistics of a particular state,” she said. “Certainly, we want to make sure we are focusing on education. Clearly, that is why I take the opportunities to come to any education institution in my home state that is working hard to educate the residents of our state so that they can go on to whatever careers they choose.”

Harris said she is certainly proud of those who are college-educated, but is also a proponent of any training beyond secondary education.

“I tell folks if they want to be a plumber and that is your lifelong dream and that fits with what you want to do, that is great,” Harris said. “Just be the best plumber you can be.”

“But clearly, education is key,” she added. “If you have education, you are more likely to have employment. If you have employment, you are more likely to have health insurance and that is a contributor to healthier lives.”

When asked if she could go back and give her younger self a piece of advice, Harris said there’s actually plenty of advice she would like to impart to her younger self.

“The one key issue is to make sure to know and appreciate your value,” Harris said. “I always tell young folks they are enough and ask them to make sure they know their own value and worth and make sure they require others to appreciate and respect their own value and worth.”

Harris said sometimes, people go through life and do not appreciate their own talents and gifts.

“Sometimes we have detractors and sometimes, it is easy to believe the detractors,” she said. “I can tell you in my own life there were detours to medical school. At one point, I did not believe I was smart enough and I thought maybe I was not as smart as others.”

“So, the one piece of advice I would give is to know you are talented, you are smart – everyone has their own talent and their own gifts,” she said. “The key is to know what that is, to use those gifts and talents, to value those gifts and talents, and to make sure others value those gifts and talents. At the end of the day, what that means is to be your authentic self. That is the best thing to do — stand in your authentic voice and be your authentic self.”

Harris said no one has the market cornered on any particular issue.

“We should always be open to learning – learning from others who are different ages,” Harris said. “Be open to learning from others who do not look like you, do not think like you and worship like you. Just be open to learning.”

Finally, Harris said as the AMA President she has learned so many lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Clearly, no one would have wished COVID on our world, but I believe many of us have taken this opportunity to prioritize what is critical – what we truly value,” Harris said. “That will be different for everyone, but I think that has been a significant opportunity and I will say, with our early success with vaccinations in the state of West Virginia, folks have a vision of who they think we are in West Virginia, and I think it is a great opportunity to showcase the best of West Virginia. It was quite fun to showcase how well we were doing regarding vaccinations in our state and the innovative approaches we took to meet people where they are.”

During Sunday’s WVWC Commencement, Harris received an honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters.

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