2022 Class Day Speaker Announced

Dean Lisa Rosen-Metsch has announced the featured speaker for the 2022 Columbia University School of General Studies Class Day ceremony, which will be held on Monday, May 16 at 7:45 a.m. This year, the keynote speaker is Deo Niyizonkiza ’01GS.

April 27, 2022

This year’s Class Day keynote speaker is Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza, founder and CEO of Village Health Works, a leading advocate for some of the world’s most impoverished and vulnerable people. His compassion, expertise, and lived experience have made him a key voice in global health and international development. 

Deo was born in rural Burundi, escaping to New York City when his medical studies were interrupted by a catastrophic war that lasted more than a decade and took the lives of hundreds of thousands. Having survived war in Burundi and homelessness in New York City, he eventually enrolled at the Columbia University School of General Studies where he received his bachelor’s degree. He then attended the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer and worked at Partners In Health before resuming his medical education at Dartmouth Medical School.

In 2005, Deo returned to Burundi, a country plagued by poverty, to establish Village Health Works, a model rural healthcare system. Deo’s passion and vision rallied his community of Kigutu into action, former enemies who became collaborators and friends. With land from the community, seed money from American students and supporters, many compassionate volunteers, and Deo’s leadership, Village Health Works was formed.

Deo Niyizonkiza ’01

Village Health Works now employs more than 700 people and serves a catchment area of over 200,000 people with the goal of removing barriers to human dignity and progress by creating a model health care system and education based on critical thinking. Village Health Works has built a 150-bed teaching and research hospital, The Kigutu Hospital and Women’s Health Pavilion, and a boarding school, the Kigutu International Academy. It also supports a public school for children from pre-K to the end of high school. Village Health Works has created a holistic approach that goes beyond healthcare and education and includes an economic development program, food security, and music and the arts. 

A frequent lecturer on global health, Deo is the recipient of multiple prestigious awards, including the Carnegie Foundation of New York as the 2016 Great Immigrant: The Pride of America, the 2016 Presidential Medal: Amitiés des Peuples (Burundi), the 2014 Dalai Lama Unsung Hero of Compassion Award, the 2013 People to People International’s Eisenhower Medallion Award, a 2015 honorary degree from Arcadia University, a 2013 honorary degree from Williams College, the 2011 International Medal Award of St. John’s University, the 2010 Women’s Refugee Commission’s Voices of Courage Award, and the Otis Social Justice Award presented by Wheaton College in 2014. In 2014 Deo was invited by Dennis M. Hanno to give a keynote address at Hanno’s inauguration as Wheaton’s eighth president. Deo will be receiving an honorary degree from Wheaton in May 2022.

About Columbia University School of General Studies
The Columbia University School of General Studies (GS), founded in 1947, is the premier liberal arts college in the United States for nontraditional students seeking a traditional undergraduate Ivy League education. GS students take the same courses, study with the same faculty, and earn the same degree as all undergraduates at Columbia University.