For the first time in three years, Heller students, faculty, and staff came together for an in-person diploma ceremony. The graduates — 195 master’s degree recipients from 2022 and 41 doctoral degree recipients from 2020, 2021 and 2022 — represent seven programs and more than 40 countries, speaking over 35 languages.
Each year, each Heller program selects one student to speak on behalf of their program, and this year’s students were nothing short of extraordinary. I’ve included the speech of COEX’s Commencement Speaker, Jan Afza Sarwari, MA SID/COEX’22, below, but I encourage you to read all of the commencement coverage, including the other commencement speeches, on our news page.
COEX Commencement Speaker, Jan Afza Sarwari, MA SID/COEX’22: “Thank you, Dean David Weil, the members of the board of advisors, respected faculty, friends, family and the COEX class of 2022 for giving me the honor of speaking with you today.
When in the hot summer day of July 2019, my parents hugged me goodbye in the crowded Kabul airport, I did not know that it would be our last goodbye for so many years to come. As the airplane was gradually taking off, I could look down at the spectacular mountain views of Kabul from the small airplane window reflecting on my dreams, bigger than the heights of those mountains. I could reflect on the question posed by the Fulbright committee when I applied for the scholarship, asking, “What will you do for your country when you return back to Afghanistan?”
As I reached Brandeis and we came together under the same roof of the Schneider building at the Heller School, I realized that the world had been a terrible place for almost all of us. Through our journeys here, we also carried along with us the heavy weights of different struggles in our home countries; from genocide to racial inequity, from gender inequality to gross human rights abuses, from corruption to war, from poverty to economic disparity, from climate catastrophe to increased global warming and so much more. But one thing was certain. We came together to stand against all these sufferings and difficulties impacting our world and be the face of social justice as Brandeis and the Heller mission states.
For me, however, the burden of carrying my share of struggles was huge. I am a Hazara, an ethnic group in Afghanistan who have been persecuted for over a century making it as harsh for them as the Holocaust for Jewish people during the World War II. I was born during Afghanistan’s civil war and the Mujahedin period. I started going to a secret school during the earlier Taliban regime, walking two hours each way every day when girls were not even allowed to attend one. I fought patriarchal norms and ethno-religious discriminations to have the power and the opportunity to stand here in front of you at this very moment.
Unluckily, the burden is still huge, when in almost all our classes at Heller, we were taught that girls’ education is a “silver bullet” to sustainable growth, to eradicating poverty, and to eliminating conflict. However, today also marks the 247th day in which millions of girls across Afghanistan are banned from going to school. The burden is still huge when women’s and minorities’ voices calling for justice and respect for their basic human rights are being muted, detained, and killed. The burden is still huge when more than 90% of people in Afghanistan live below the poverty line, making it the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The burden is immensely huge when your answer to the question of “What will you do for your country when you return back to Afghanistan?” remains on a piece of paper, as for now.
While I struggled with all the hardships during the last year, the Heller School taught me one thing; no matter what you face or what you feel, there is the wonderful Heller and Brandeis community that lifts you up, cherishes you and your achievements and motivates you to move on with hope and resilience and be the face of social justice no matter where in the world you are.
Finally, as we celebrate our accomplishments and the end of a rewarding yet challenging chapter of our lives, I would like to wholeheartedly thank the Fulbright Program and the U.S. taxpayers for their generosity, Brandeis University for giving me a home away from home, my professors, and fellow classmates for providing me with knowledge and courage, my parents for their prayers, family and friends for their unconditional love and support throughout this learning journey.
May we achieve worldwide peace. May we not forget the women in Afghanistan.”