Kennedy delivers Alumnus of the Year Award address at Alumni Weekend pharmacy gala

On June 2, 2018, Kathleen B. Kennedy, PharmD ’78, received the 2018 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year Award from the UCSF Pharmacy Alumni Association, for her “outstanding contributions to the profession of pharmacy, to society, and/or to UCSF.”

As the dean of the College of Pharmacy, Xavier University of Louisiana, she has been a national advocate for lessening health disparities by strengthening the underlying health of communities.

Kennedy addressed the pharmacy dinner gala during UCSF’s campuswide Alumni Weekend, held at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco. In the audience were more than 180 School of Pharmacy alumni, pharmacy students, faculty, and guests. Kennedy has graciously agreed to let the School share her powerful acceptance remarks here.

I want to thank the Alumni Association and the Alumni Selection Committee for this honor. Thanks to the dean and his staff for being so gracious and accommodating, especially with my large entourage of supporters. However, I never expected to receive such accolades for what I do, or have done, to move us toward achieving health equity, because it is important work that needs to be done. I thank the faculty and staff of UCSF—those who were around when I was a student as well as those who continue the great legacy of producing students who have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be successful health care providers—who can make a difference in the world.

The great NFL football coach Vince Lombardi is quoted as saying: “The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”

I mention this because I think the essence of what he says establishes some direction for your life as it has for me over the years. The first is to set goals—dream about what you want to be or do. The second is to prepare yourself—seek or obtain all the tools that you need to be successful. And finally, be confident that you can do it with determination and hard work. As I reflect back on my life’s journey, I know that my matriculation through UCSF is where I was able to obtain those threads that outline where I have been and what has brought me to this point.

I grew up in the south—in Nashville, Tennessee—during the time of segregation. As African Americans, we had separate things—our own schools, churches and movie theaters—just to name a few differences. If there was a special movie only playing downtown, we entered the theater on the side and sat upstairs. I remember the economic boycotts when my family insisted that we could not buy from stores because we were trying to bring about a change (although at the time I did not really understand). I never imagined that I would have had the opportunity to attend a prestigious school like UCSF.

As a child, I attended the only Catholic elementary school that African Americans could attend at the time—St. Vincent de Paul. The school was founded by St. Katharine Drexel, a remarkable woman who continues to inspire the work that I do today. From Philadelphia, Katharine was a wealthy heiress whose parents had stressed the need to use their wealth to help others and had modeled that behavior by opening up their family home to feed the poor three times a week. As a young woman, Katharine traveled extensively. When traveling to the south and southwestern parts of the U.S., she saw the impoverishment of the Native Americans and African Americans. Katharine, who was considering joining an order of cloistered nuns, visited Pope Leo XIII and asked him to send missionaries to help these people. The Pope told her that she should go to help them.

Katharine founded a religious order of nuns who dedicated their lives to the education and service of the African American and Native American communities. She used her inheritance to build schools—and one college—to give them the opportunity to be educated, productive citizens. That college happens to be Xavier University of Louisiana, where I am today.

St. Katharine’s religious order—the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament—founded my elementary school. While I was a seventh grader preparing for high school, the nuns learned that the “better” college prep high schools for girls, which happened to be Catholic, decided to institute an admissions test before they would accept African Americans. This did not deter the nuns. They selected some of us to prepare for this test. We had special sessions outside of our regular class time to read and discuss a number of books; we practiced solving math problems and worked on vocabulary. Let me tell you—all of us successfully integrated the schools.

So I am grateful for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who gave me my foundation and fought for my rights.

Now, my high school was run by another religious order. Of course, I had great respect for the religious. So as a tenth grader, when we were given a career placement test and it said my interest was in pharmacy or the pharmaceutical sciences, I was a believer. My interest in pharmacy developed during my high school years.

I started my college career at the University of Tennessee, but after getting married moved to the Oakland area. Still interested in pharmacy, one day in a chemistry lab I heard a student talking about his quest to get into UCSF pharmacy school. I didn’t even know they had a pharmacy school, but now I had motivation to go on the path that the sisters had outlined for me. I had a conversation with Dr. (Robert) Gibson, applied, and was accepted. I thank him for his vision to diversify the workforce. I think we had the largest number of African American students in UCSF history at the time.

As students, Dr. Gibson introduced us to an organization that focused its efforts on minority health issues. Finally, it was during my residency, while completing an academic rotation with Dr. Mary Anne Koda-Kimble, that I was encouraged to pursue academics. All of these individuals have played an important part in my commitment to do what I do.

Now, as I have reflected on my current path over the years, I am reminded of a speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” delivered as his first sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954. In it, Dr. King reflects on the writings of John in the book of Revelation, where John refers to “this new city of God,” Jerusalem, where the length, breadth, and height of it are all equal. This is a “city of ideal humanity.” So what John is really saying is that “life as it should be, and life at its best, is complete on all sides” with these three dimensions.

Dr. King goes on to explain that the length of life is not just its duration or how long it lasts, but it is a life forward to achieve its inner powers and ambitions. It’s the inner concern for one’s own welfare. The breadth of life is the outreach, “outward concern for the welfare of others… And the height of life is the upward reach for God.” If life is to be complete, these three must be together; they must all work harmoniously.

Dr. King further explains that the reason for the problems in our country (and I believe that if he were alive he would be referring to the disparities that exist) is that the majority population is only concerned about the length of life, their preferred economic position, their political power, and their so-called way of life. Dr. King says that if more people would rise up and “add breadth to length,” we would be able to solve all the problems in our nation.

So this is my mission—to get more people, my students in particular, to pay more attention to their breadth of life.

I am happy to say that there are two young people here today who have taken up the challenge. My daughter, Dauri Kennedy, is the first. Fifteen years ago she started a music and drama camp for underprivileged children in Santa Barbara, to improve their self-esteem while providing them with performance skills. These are primarily Hispanic kids. This has not been an easy task, but these young people are now flourishing, with many success stories of them getting college scholarships in the performing arts.

The second is someone I met, also about 15 years ago, before Hurricane Katrina. She was a community organizer and I approached her to offer our services to the community to provide health education and screenings. She is now our mayor—the first female mayor of New Orleans, who happens to be African American. Mayor LaToya Cantrell is committed to improving the quality of life of all the citizens of the city, particularly youth and families and other vulnerable populations.

I applaud them for their efforts and for recognizing the importance of the three dimensions of life. To them and to anyone with these similar ambitions, or to anyone who wants to make a difference; or, in our case, to implement initiatives to improve health outcomes, my advice comes from one of my mentors at Xavier who says: “God’s will will not take you where his grace will not sustain you.”

So I again thank you for recognizing me tonight. I conclude with words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I quote:

“I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

Thank you very much.


School of Pharmacy, Department of Clinical Pharmacy, PharmD Degree Program

About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.