It’s no accident that Sana Raoof, a 29-year-old medical student from Muttontown, delivered a virtual commencement speech — an oration, as they call it — at Harvard University on Thursday.
Raoof had been preparing for such a moment since she was 3 years old. Harvard, like other campuses, went online with graduation exercises this year, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea that children should learn public speaking at an early age originated with a grandfather, Abdul Raoof, who grew up orphaned and poor in a village in northern India. He managed somehow to win a scholarship, studying at night under a streetlight buzzing with insects, and eventually obtained a Ph.D. from Columbia University. The experience left him with a powerful belief in education.
As an adult, Abdul Raoof served as a director at UNESCO, opening schools across southern Asia. He died in June at age 96, so Sana Raoof’s speech served as a valedictory of sorts for a grandfather who encouraged her, as a small girl, to stand up and recite at family gatherings.
“It was not his Ivy League degree, but his experience at the bottom of society that propelled him,” the granddaughter said in her address.
Sana Raoof and a younger brother grew up in Dix Hills and Muttontown, attending schools in the Half Hollow Hills district and then in Jericho. Both parents are physicians and heads of medical units at New York City hospitals.
During this period, the grandparents, who also had moved to Long Island, took on much of the responsibility for the grandchildren’s educations. Chrysi Notskas, a former teacher in the Half Hollow Hills system, recently recalled a phone call she received one day from Abdul Raoof.
The grandfather, it seemed, had learned of Notskas’ success in prepping high school students to win national research competitions. He was hoping the teacher could help mentor his granddaughter, who was a sixth-grader at the time.
Notskas ultimately agreed to the plan, despite the girl's young age. It's a decision the retired teacher doesn't regret.
“She’s an amazing kid, a true star,” Notskas said of her former pupil.
At Jericho High School, Sana Raoof graduated in 2008 as one of four valedictorians — good practice for a future Harvard commencement speaker. She also won a $50,000 top award in an international science fair, while excelling in debate and track.
Once enrolled at Harvard, Raoof concentrated on chemistry and physics courses as an undergraduate, while serving as editor-in-chief of a campus science review. She just completed an MD/Ph.D. program at Harvard Medical School, which allows students to engage in both medical studies and laboratory research.
Raoof, as a commencement orator, represented the medical school and 11 other graduate and professional schools within the university. Two other students spoke for Harvard’s undergraduate college.
Selection of student graduation speakers was determined through a two-month screening process, with professors serving as judges. The tradition stretches more than 370 years on America’s oldest college campus, and winning a slot is described by officials there as “among the highest honors a student can achieve.”
Thursday's event started at 11 a.m. in a virtual format, due to health precautions. Harvard hopes to have its Class of 2020 back eventually for an on-campus celebration, as soon as it's safe.
Raoof's graduation will be followed by a year's work in a Massachusetts hospital. In June 2021, she'll return with her husband to New York State, where she will serve four years of medical residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. She’ll be specializing in radiation oncology, training among other residents known for their willingness, as she describes it, to “work a ton.”
“I knew I was never going to be a slacker,” she said.