When I saw the subject line in my email, “Honorary Degree…” I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Surely it doesn’t mean what I think it means. So I went for a run and opened it later. It turns out, yes, indeed was being awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Science from my alma mater, University of Indianapolis! What’s more, they also requested that I give the commencement address!

Shock! Who gets these awards? Famous, powerful, wealthy people. Not someone like me. What a humble privilege to be honored this way just for doing what I see needs to be done. I’m just taking what I have and doing my best with it. This is also the theme with the three other honorary degree recipients, Marc Adams, Ken Borden, and James Ream – ordinary people doing extraordinary things by just following our passions.


(Doctor of Science: Dr. Katherine Welch, ’93) First of two Commencement ceremonies on May 6, 2017. (Photo by D. Todd Moore, University of Indianapolis)

My story of how I went from a pre-med student at UIndy to where I am now is one of the things that captured the administration’s attention. Taking one step at a time, no long term plan of how to get from A to Z, just accepting each challenge as it came. One of the first challenges I accepted was to attend medical school. Dr. Joe Burnell and the other Chemistry professors strongly urged me to consider becoming a physician as I “have what it takes” and what I “would be a great doctor”. So that is what I did and that’s partly why I’m here now.

Between graduating from UIndy and now quite a few years passed without much contact with the university because I was off in other countries doing other things. The reconnection with UIndy began when Dr. Burnell began Google searching to find out what happened to me. He hadn’t been able to follow me like other graduates and was quite surprised to find out why I was difficult to follow! He introduced me back to the administration and they were delighted with my story.

University of Indianapolis’ motto is “Education for Service” and therefore the school feels proud to have one of their alumni involved in this work. Likewise I am very pleased to see how UIndy has developed their health science program to incorporate their schools of Nursing, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and Behavioral Health in the same building. This reflects a vision of holistic health that most centers of higher learning don’t grasp.

To return to campus felt like a homecoming and I’m delighted to be reconnected to the UIndy family. Professors in several departments have started discussing with me possibilities to collaborate in counter-trafficking work in Thailand including internships and research. I’m excited about the potential for future projects together.


Keynote speaker Dr. Katherine Welch. First of two Commencement ceremonies on May 6, 2017. (Photo by D. Todd Moore, University of Indianapolis)

Commencement day brought all kinds of excitement and jitters. On the platform (you can watch my entire speech here), it seemed like the whole weight of this honor was on me but I wasn’t bearing it – it was being shared by everyone in the auditorium. As my career biography was being read, I saw the eyes of the graduates in the first rows grow wide and smiling, and I had nothing but exuberant hope for them. There is so much potential in each individual – that I hope they will grasp – and my smile could not have been wider.

There’s a lot that goes on with an award like this – interviews about my journey to philanthropic medicine and what receiving the honorary degree means to me and articles about my work have been great exposure for Relentless and the people with whom I work.

I am deeply grateful for the work I get to do and for this award that connects me even more to the UIndy community. I concluded my speech at commencement: “Could I have ever planned the places I’ve gone and the things I’ve been able to do? I would have skipped the deep pain but the joys would have been much less satisfying. The thrilling part is that discovery is a lifelong process. Life is the process – it’s not what we get when we have it all figured out. Discover who you will be and then what you do will be an outpouring gift to everyone around you.”

photo: Todd Moore, University of Indianapolis