Category: Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity (page 2 of 2)

Missing Home-cooked Meals: From a Very Hungry Graduate Student (Sazia Nowshin)

Sazia Nowshin, MBA/SID’22

Let’s face it, being responsible for yourself is not fun. The luxuries of living at “home” are far gone when one moves away for college, work, or for any other opportunity. I used to revel in the spoils of living with my parents in my undergraduate career, with access to free laundry, home-cooked meals (the lack of which is currently the bane of my existence), and a queen bed. However, when I had to move away to attend Heller last August, I had no idea what I was in for. 

Having lived at home all my life until graduate school had its perks. I had the privilege of waking up every morning to the smell of some new meal my mother was cooking or a fresh cup of chai. When I had dirty clothes, I simply put them in the hamper and did the laundry downstairs in the basement. Little did I know that these would be luxuries compared to my current circumstances. 

Who would have thought that the toughest part of moving away was moving away from my mother’s chicken curry with purple top turnips? The gravy she cooks it in is thinner and slightly spicier, saturating the softened turnips and making the chicken pieces fall off the bone. I cannot guarantee that I am not salivating while typing this but the nostalgia is so strong, I can smell it right now. To cope with this, I exhausted the many options available on Uber Eats, Grubhub, Doordash, and Caviar. If I am missing some services, please let me know… although I’d rather not know, just so I still afford rent. Leaving behind my mother’s cooking in Scranton, I explored the plethora of cuisines found in the Greater Boston area. From my favorite, the Bittersweet Shoppe on Newbury St., to Kimchipapi, I have had a taste of food that was not available back at home. However, there are times when I fondly remember my mother’s handmade pithas or even, at times, her simple chicken curry. 

To mitigate this, I started making food my mother would make at home in my apartment. FaceTime, my savior this semester, came in handy whenever the gravy to one of the curries I was making had the wrong viscosity or looked “off.” My mother, the hard-working woman she is, would answer the call at all times to guide me through the process. I remade her recipes and came up with ones of my own. The taste is not the same, but it is something. I know the journey life has taken me is one towards success, but I can never forget those who protected me throughout that journey. Brandeis is offering me an enriched and wonderful education, but it did take away eating my mother’s meals. It is a very difficult trade-off but I have been able to manage with the help of video chats and phone calls. It is not all that bad, though. I am sure there is a return on investment hiding there somewhere…

How Social Justice Oriented is Heller? Andrea Shares Her Thoughts

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

Disclaimer: This blog post reflects my personal views and experience in Heller’s MPP program. I cannot guarantee that it reflects the experience of all students of color throughout all Heller programs.

As a Graduate Assistant in the Admissions Office and a current student in the Masters of Public Policy program, I have the pleasure of interviewing many prospective MPP students. What’s interesting is that you all want to know one thing: Is Heller really the social justice school it claims to be? As a Black student and active rabble-rouser in the MPP program, I know the answer to this question very well: Yes.

First, let me be real with you, Heller is not perfect. There is a serious lack of diversity among staff and faculty that has been acknowledged by Heller leadership and is being addressed. The diversity within the MPP program is also lacking. However, this has increased every year during the past 3-5 years, which gives me hope. Both of these issues can easily lead to students only learning from a white, liberal perspective. To counteract this in the short-term, professors are transforming their syllabi to reflect a greater diversity of perspectives. It’s apparent by the way Heller addresses its shortcomings that, through all of its faults, this school still holds true to its motto of “Knowledge Advancing Social Justice.”

I’ve been blown away by the awareness of those whom I have encountered on staff and faculty regarding racial and economic disparities within America. (Note: The MPP program mainly uses a national lens. I cannot speak for the SID, COEX, or GHPM programs, but I would hope that they are just as aware.) Yet as good-intentioned and—for lack of a better term—woke as Heller staff and faculty are, intentions do not always reflect impact. For all of their awareness, they can still be blind to how these disparities affect their students.

The Fall 2020 semester was mentally and emotionally exhausting for many of us at Heller. I saw that this was particularly apparent among the students of color within my first-year cohort. Not only were our families and communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but we also had to continually watch people who looked like us be killed by the police with little to no retribution. Moreover, we had to discuss these topics and other forms of oppression during class as if we weren’t personally affected by them. It was exhausting.

Our professors’ intent was to shed light on the drastic disparities experienced by people of color in America. Yet their impact was an endless stream of emotionally draining conversations, that, while important to have, are not easy for those with lived experiences to walk away from. It’s not easy for us to turn off these topics in our head and focus on normal coursework. Heller needed to understand this.

The students of color throughout Heller’s MPP program came together that semester to write a letter to Heller leadership requesting more support from faculty and staff, such as: providing more spaces for us to heal together, in-class acknowledgment of our lived experiences, safe pathways for students to vocalize their needs, and more. To our surprise, Heller leadership responded immediately and worked with us to implement the changes we requested. We felt seen and heard by those in positions of power. There is still much work to be done, but that experience was confirmation that we had chosen the right school, a school whose commitment to advancing social justice stands firm, even if it has to reevaluate its own system to do so.

Heller Reading List: Andrea Tyree Shares Her Favorite Readings

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

Recently, an old friend visited my apartment and, as I was showing him around, he noticed something peculiar. I have a stack of books on my desk, some I’ve read in preparation for coming to Heller and some for specific classes. Most of my class readings are online (invest in blue-light blocking glasses, folks) but there have been a couple I’ve purchased or borrowed (thanks Mom!) outright to really annotate. This particular stack included How to Be Antiracist, The New Jim Crow, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and Hillbilly Elegy.

Noticing this stack, my friend stopped and laughed out loud: “One of these things does not belong.” He wondered why in the world Hillbilly Elegy was included in a stack of social justice literature? Why would professors at Heller, a quite progressive institution, have us read such a biased and inaccurate portrayal of the Appalachian region? (P.S. The new Netflix film is worse.)

“Because,” I beamed with pride, “we tore it apart in my Assets and Social Policy class.” I picked up the book and showed him the countless tabs I had placed throughout the book where I found faults in the author’s storyline and argument.

Now I know I’ve already written about my Assets and Social Policy course, but this course has some of the most enlightening and engaging readings. From learning about the cultural wealth and capital that communities of color have built as a result of systemic oppression (“Whose Culture Has Capital?”) to examining the role of gender-based violence on women’s assets and wealth (“The Role of Sexual Violence in Creating and Maintaining Economic Insecurity Among Asset-Poor Women of Color”), I’ve gained knowledge in this course that I’ll carry with me throughout my life.

Yet my favorite lesson focused on rural poverty—a form of poverty not often acknowledged in social and racial justice conversations—centering on an analysis of Hillbilly Elegy. I warned my classmates ahead of time, “Y’all, as a native West Virginia, I have to represent the thousands of us who cannot stand this book. I’m about to go in on J.D. Vance (the author).”

And go in I did.

Our professor, Jess, created space for a thoughtful and critical conversation on the narrative of poverty within this book. We analyzed how the author placed the responsibility of poverty on Appalachian communities, identifying it as a character flaw rather than the result of generations of systemic oppression, resource drain, and lack of external investment in these communities. We addressed our personal and societal biases against rural, impoverished America and discussed ways to invest in it.

It was one of the first classes where I truly felt seen and heard. I’m grateful that my peers were able to analyze and critique a novel that feeds into the negative narrative about rural America and, specifically, Appalachia. And I’m proud of how I stood strong for my community. It’s moments like those that remind me of why I chose Heller and excite me for what’s to come.

Learning from your Heller Classmates

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

I’ve learned so much during my time at Heller so far— but the education I’ve gained outside of the classroom has been just as valuable to me as the lessons I learned from my professors. Heller students come to Brandeis from so many different countries and backgrounds, and bring their own personal experiences and knowledge with them to Heller, and I’ve really, really enjoyed the new perspectives they’ve helped me to gain!

As a self-described “linguistics nerd”, I can’t get enough of learning new words to add to my vocabulary. Surrounded by my COEX cohort, I couldn’t help but pick up phrases from my classmates who speak French, Swahili, and Mandarin (just to name a few.) I can even properly insult someone in Arabic, if the need ever arises. I’ve studied Hindi over the last few years, and I’ve made friends who were able, as native Hindi speakers, to offer to practice conversation with me. I’ve also had fun finding similar words that exist in languages that may seem unrelated at first.

The cultural exchange I’ve had with my COEX classmates also extends to food. Every culture celebrates food in its own special way. Last fall, we held a potluck where I got to try an Iraqi stew, Egyptian shakshuka, Amish friendship bread, and baba ganoush. If I hadn’t met my friends here at Heller, I may never have had the opportunity to try and learn about new food and the cultural significance that surrounds them.

My COEX classmates have also come to Heller with very different professional experiences, which informs the way I’ve learned outside of Heller’s classrooms. My friends have told me about working as educators and tour guides, as businesspeople, as Peace Corps Volunteers, and as workers in complex conflict zones such as Syria. Personally, I worked for a variety of non-profit organizations before coming to Heller, and my classmates were just as interested in hearing about my professional experience as I was about theirs. Hearing about my classmates’ professional experiences helped me to better contemplate and understand my own career aspirations. Exchanging these ideas and information with each other was an incredible, and very exciting, learning experience for all of us in the cohort.

When evaluating grad schools, it is equally important to consider the lessons you can learn outside of the classroom as the knowledge you’ll gain from your professors. I have gleaned so much from my COEX friends, and this information has been both professionally valuable as well as culturally enriching to me personally. The cultural exchange that takes place between Heller students is endlessly informative, exciting, and fulfilling. My friends at Heller have been some of my favorite teachers.

Changing the World 101: Assets and Social Policy

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

It’s a cliché, but choosing only one course at Heller to write about is tough. As someone who feared statistics, Applied Regression Analysis gets an honorable mention in my book. (Seriously, to all other prospective MPP’s who managed to avoid statistics in your life, your stats professor, Steve, has got you covered!) Yet I think it’s more important to take this moment to write a love letter to my favorite class, Assets and Social Policy.

When I tell you I love Jessica Santos’s Assets course, I mean I looooove it. For me, it’s a perfect example of why I came to Heller. Assets and Social Policy teaches you how to examine the policies, practices, and norms that contribute to persistent poverty, concentrated wealth, and structural racial inequality in the US. Doesn’t that sounds exciting?!

Yes? No?

Wait, let me break down some of what we’ve learned before you decide.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the income gap between men and women as well as between white and non-white Americans. But have you examined the wealth gap? Check out these stats:

  • White single women earn 72 cents to the white male’s dollar.
  • White single women only own 32 cents to the while male’s dollar.
  • The median income for White Americans is $60K; the median wealth is $110K.
  • The median income for Black Americans is $35K; the median wealth is $7K.

Are you getting an idea for the stark contrast in wealth? Wealth is the total extent of an individual’s assets and resources (e.g. savings, real estate, stocks, etc.). But intangible assets (e.g. networks, knowledge, aspirational capital, etc.) can contribute to wealth as well. If we truly want to tackle poverty, we have to address the wealth gap in this country.

And that’s just the beginning (literally day 1). In this course, you’ll examine how assets affect a person or community’s social and economic course, what institutional conditions limit or expand opportunities for wealth accumulation, how policies can perpetuate disadvantages, and so much more. You’ll even compare urban and rural poverty and gain some new perspectives!

Getting excited now?

One month in, you’ll apply what you’ve learned in class to your own life by writing your Asset Story. If nothing else, this assignment is a great excuse to sit down with family members, learn about family history, and even discover something new about your ancestors! As a mixed, Black woman who was raised by two parents with sufficient income, I knew I carried quite a bit of privilege. Yet, in researching my Assets Story, I learned that tangible and intangible assets have equipped my family with privilege for generations. I never considered my Black grandparents as having privilege, but their assets (e.g. property passed down to them) freed up income that allowed them to better support their family. In addition, had my father not had neighbors who were college professors, he may have never formed the aspirations to establish the first Black law firm in Charleston, West Virginia.

I’d recommend this course to any student at Heller, as I believe it applies to all fields and can even be studied in an international context. This class and professor, Jess, have challenged me in the best ways. I haven’t finished the course yet but if I could take an Assets and Social Policy Part 2, I would in a heartbeat.

Campus Connections: Sami Rovins’ Perspective

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

I’ve made many connections during my past year at Heller who have changed and enhanced my life personally, academically, and professionally. One of the connections I’m most thankful for is my friend Hadeer. She and I come from different backgrounds and grew up in quite different places, but our friendship was nearly immediate, and over the course of our first semester at Heller we grew a strong bond. I have learned so much since connecting with Hadeer last Fall, and I continue to value her friendship tremendously!

On the surface, Hadeer and I might seem like two very different people. She grew up in Egypt, and I am from Philadelphia. My family is Jewish, and Hadeer was raised Muslim. Yet we quickly bonded over our shared interests and goals. From our mutual love of cheese, to our shared taste in music, to our career aspirations, we learned about each other and so many similarities popped right out. I think this is the true beauty of many Heller friendships. Seemingly different people are brought together into a context where their similarities matter more than their differences.

Hadeer and I first met during Heller’s orientation. Then, as classes started, I quickly witnessed how eloquent, passionate, and informed she is. Many times, Hadeer has demonstrated her natural way of making me feel that my interests and opinions are especially valuable. She is always a “safe space” and I know I can express to her any problems I might have without feeling judged.

The range of what I’ve learned from Hadeer is wide, and I’m very thankful for that: from adding Arabic words to my vocabulary, to enjoying all the musical artists she’s introduced me to (like the duo Amadou + Mariam from Mali). Hearing Hadeer’s thoughts on international development, peacebuilding, and feminism has been endlessly enlightening for me. My friendship with Hadeer is a perfect example of what it’s like to make friends at Heller. You will share and trade ideas, passions, and interests. You’ll learn bits of new languages and gain new perspectives. You will meet wonderful people who you ordinarily might never come across.

I appreciate my connection with Hadeer in particular because it’s a multi-level friendship. We connect with each other on school, philosophy, food, and our mutual love of dogs, just to name a few. We offer each other emotional support and always lend an ear when it’s needed. Our differences are not irrelevant to our friendship; Instead, we use our differences to learn from one another and gain insight into each other’s experiences. I feel lucky to have forged a friendship with Hadeer early on in my time at Heller. She has been such an excellent resource for me in so many ways – not only personally, but academically and professionally as well.

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