Tag: Graduation

Graduation Day with Ariel Wexler

It was 97 degrees in late May and a heat advisory warning was in effect for the greater Boston area. Having completing dual degrees in a MA in Sustainable International Development and Social Impact MBA, I was about to graduate from The Heller School. Professors, staff, friends, family, and colleagues were all seated together in a large tent on the great lawn where we withstood the heat to listen to inspiring words and cheer on the names of the graduating students. Although it may seem ironic that the one day of extreme temperatures coincided with graduation, considering our studies were achieved during already unprecedented times, it seemed quite fitting.

We had commenced our studies shortly before or during the pandemic and became accustomed to remote and hybrid learning.  While sitting and listening to my peers’ speeches, I was humbled and reminded of the different paths that we each took to lead to the present moment, the completion of our graduate studies at The Heller School. I felt the immense privilege to have been granted the opportunity to study higher education, a right that not everyone can access due to factors such as financial, political, and religious barriers.

When I reflect on the past two years, I have made many incredible friendships with students from all over the world that came to study at this esteemed university. Although it feels surreal that I am graduating, I feel gratitude and accomplishment. From a young age, I struggled with comparing myself to my peers and never having the self-confidence to think that I could achieve success in my career. It was not until completing my undergraduate degree in 2015 that I decided that achieving a Master’s degree would be a future goal. Growing up, my educational journey was difficult, and I had to work twice as hard or more than my peers. Despite being a hard worker and achieving many academic accomplishments, I was not immune to imposter syndrome.

During my 2-year Peace Corps service in Guatemala, I began to feel more confident in my skills and ability to engage deeply with stakeholders and design and manage projects to scale. I had successfully co-designed and formed 3 women’s beekeeping groups, and it was through this experience that I became interested in social enterprise.  I knew that pursuing a Master’s degree would provide me with the skills I desired as a leader. l became passionate about how entrepreneurship could be used as a tool to bring about economic development in rural global communities.  The Heller School aligned with my interests and provided me with the opportunity to complement and develop my skills in social impact management and international development.

Once the ceremony finished, I quickly walked to the shade under a beautiful tree nearby to take photographs.  Happy that my family made the journey to New England from Los Angeles to celebrate with me, I was overjoyed to be surrounded by the people that had supported me these past two years. Following graduation, my parents and I toured New England, traveling to Rhode Island and Maine. I am so grateful and lucky to have graduated from The Heller School, although my studies have come to an end I know the relationships that I have formed will remain. Now onto the next phase…

Hear from our Commencement Speakers!

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.”

Congratulating… The Heller Class of 2022!

This Sunday, the class of 2022 will be participating in the first in-person graduation that Brandeis has held in three years (the classes of 2020 and 2021 can join a Re-Commencement ceremony). This is an incredibly exciting time for all of us here at Heller, but for those of us in Heller Admissions, it also means saying good-bye to some our wonderful graduate assistants, including Hannah Lougheed and Daniella Levine. To celebrate their accomplishments, I’d like to take a moment to curate a “best-of” for both of them; below, please find some of my favorite blog posts by these two talented students.

Daniella Levine

Hannah Lougheed

Feel free to read the rest of Daniella’s and Hannah’s blog posts, and enjoy the coverage of last year’s commencement, where you can listen to student speakers from each of our graduate programs. Congratulations, Heller class of 2022!

Sami’s Top Five Moments at Heller

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

As my time at Heller gradually comes to a close, I can’t help but to reflect on my best experiences over the last two years. Coming to grad school for the first time, you’ll have quite a lot to look forward to! And to give you a sneak peak, I’ve listed my top five Heller moments of success, learning, and friendship (in no particular order).

  1. Completing my Master’s Thesis. For nearly a year, I’ve been working on my thesis for my COEX capstone, our last project before we graduate. The final paper ended up being over forty pages long (!), but it took a great deal of re-working, tweaking, and editing to get there. I loved the experience of working with my advisor, Dr. Quintiliani, all of the academic support I received from professors and Brandeis’s research librarians, and of course the emotional support and cheerleading I was given from my friends in COEX.

2. Getting to know the area. I have enjoyed getting to know Waltham, Boston, and the surrounding area so much! After moving to Waltham, I had such a good time getting familiar with Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville. As a big museum nerd, I was very happy to visit places like the MFA and the Isabella Stuart Gardener Museum. Only twenty minutes from Waltham are places like the deCordova sculpture park and Walden Pond. The greater Boston area is such a wonderful place to be a student.

3. Getting out of my comfort zone. At Heller, I’ve been pushed far outside my comfort zone many times. I’ve found this to be an enormous opportunity to not only learn about a subject, but also to learn more about myself. I’ve engaged in sensitive and sometimes uncomfortable conversations that I quickly realized were helping me to grow as a student and as an individual. Having fellow students’ varied perspectives has brought so much value and meaning to my time here at Heller.

4. The cultural exchange. Students come to the Heller School from all around the world. I’ve learned so much from people whose languages, cultures, backgrounds, and religions were different than mine. Thanks to the COEX program, I now have a best friend from Egypt, and as a result I often find Arabic words sneaking into my vocabulary and my appreciation for Middle Eastern food expanding.

5. Specific projects. I feel very proud of the work I’ve completed as a Heller student. There are a few projects that particularly stand out. In Professor Tamaru’s “Women, Peacemaking, and Peacebuilding”, I enjoyed writing an op-ed on revolutionary Indian women that was later published on Professor Tamaru’s blog. I was also so excited to write a paper regarding various women’s influences on Malcolm X for Professor Sampath’s “Democracy and Development” course. In Professor Madison’s “Intersectionality and Bioethics” class, I had so much fun engaging in a group debate concerning the pharmaceutical industry.

My experience at the Heller School has been rewarding, challenging, and eye-opening. I’ve found my experiences here to be so valuable and have contributed so much to my growth as a student, a professional, and an individual!

A Week in the Life with Sami Rovins

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

The new Spring semester started just a few weeks ago, and I’ve got a packed schedule! I’m taking five classes during Module 1, a mix of required MS-GHPM courses and electives from different programs across Heller. It’s my last semester here at Heller, so I wanted to take a big mix of classes before I go.

My Monday morning started with Professor Nandakumar’s class, “International Health Financing”. It was great to start the week with a class taught by a professor with so much experience in the field! Professor Nandakumar also offered us some great advice: He implored us not to focus too much on our grades, but to focus instead on simply learning.

On Tuesday afternoon, I had the first session of an elective course I’ve been very excited about! The class is called “Policy Advocacy, Protest, and Community Organizing”. Professor Bailis made a great first impression — he was excited and friendly and eager to hear from his students about our backgrounds and interests. I’m looking forward to future class sessions because I want to learn how to be a more effective advocate for issues such as reproductive health and racial justice.

Wednesday mornings are for “Monitoring and Evaluation” with Professor Godoy. Having taken another M+E class last year as a COEX student, it’s interesting to see the ways in which this class is similar or different. I like the structure of the class: lots of breakout rooms and an ongoing group project. Group projects are great especially now, when everything is online, because they provide an opportunity to get to know classmates.

On Friday, I’ll have two more classes I’m looking forward to. In the morning I’ll take “Current Issues in Health Care Management” with Professor Gaumer. I’m excited to get more into the details of how to address and remedy problems that can take place in health care facilities. Later, in the afternoon on Friday, I’ll be taking Professor Sampath’s course, “Culture, Power, and Development”, another elective. Having taken Professor Sampath’s class in the Fall semester, I already know I can expect to get happily lost in readings about social theory.

Every student at Heller has their own schedule, and this is just a peek into mine. My days will also be filled up with meeting fellow students for group projects via Zoom, working remotely as a Graduate Assistant for Heller Admissions, and of course, I’ll be keeping busy with readings, assignments, and projects. Last but not least, I’ll also be working on finishing up my Capstone paper for my COEX degree. It’s so crazy to think that in just a few months, I’ll have finished all of it!

Peace Corps + Heller: A Perfect Combination

Woman in patterned shirt smiling at the camera

Elizabeth Nguyen, MBA/SID ’20

Editor’s Note: This is a bittersweet post, because it’s Elizabeth’s last one for the blog. She graduated from the SID/MBA dual program at the end of last year, but remained on staff for the summer while she was looking for a job… and she was offered a full time position as a Program Manager for Social Entrepreneurship for All starting last month! Congratulations again, Elizabeth, but you will be so missed!

Walking the halls of Heller, you will inevitably come across a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. These students and leaders are recognizable because they will inevitably have stories of living overseas, starting their conversations with the iconic “When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in….” It’s an identity that comes with leaving the US behind to spend 2+ memorable years as a grassroots international development worker in another country. 

As a member of this elusive group, I can proudly say that my Peace Corps experience in Swaziland (now called Eswatini), has been a life-changing experience that has defined my career path and time at Heller. As a recent Heller graduate who completed the Social Impact MBA and Master’s in Sustainable International Development (SID) concentrating in Social Entrepreneurship and Impact Management, I brought my experiences from my Peace Corps service into all of my conversations and projects, both inside and outside of the classroom. 

I officially started my service as a Youth Development Volunteer in Swaziland, a small landlocked country in southern Africa in 2013. But because of my family and upbringing, I knew in high school that I wanted to join the Peace Corps. As a first-generation American-born citizen, I was raised with a strong commitment to service, as exemplified through my family trips to Vietnam, where we worked in rural communities by building homes, supporting school children with school supplies, and advocating for health and hygiene.

The natural progression for my love of service grew into joining the Peace Corps. Throughout my three and a half years, I worked primarily on supporting students at a children’s home. I also ran a handcraft social enterprise supporting over 70 women and men in three rural communities. It was my first introduction to managing a business, and I was responsible for everything from creating a budget and international marketing strategy to planning trainings for the artisans. I was challenged but thrived, learning through this experience, that I loved the social impact part of enterprises. I decided to stay a third year in Swaziland to work with Enactus, an international organization working with youth social entrepreneurship, where I helped develop the communications and programs of the organization to increase impact with the students we worked with and the communities we served. 

I returned to the US and knew that I wanted to pursue a Social Impact MBA to further my education and to learn more about how to run a business so that I can best support other entrepreneurs around the world. At Heller, the MBA classes have helped me better understand business strategies, financial management, and even business pitches. My SID classes have helped me focus my work on Southern African countries like South Africa and Swaziland. 

I even was able to help plan the annual Social Impact Startup Challenge and Hult Prize competitions, encouraging other students across all programs with ideas to start businesses. Last year, I was also asked to present in front of an audience at Brandeis University’s Africa Culture Night, where I was able to highlight my experiences in Swaziland. It amazes me how much my service has changed my life and directed my time at Heller and as I move forward into my next job as a Program Manager for Entrepreneurship for All, I am excited to bring my Peace Corps and Heller experiences to create maximum impact for entrepreneurs and their communities.

Graduating During a Pandemic: Elizabeth Nguyen’s Experience

Class of 2020 – Graduating this past May, my cohort had it differently than most Heller graduates. I think the word that I would use to describe the majority of this year is “surreal”… When March hit, COVID-19 was escalating quickly and it was clear that all of our in-person classes would need to move online immediately. It felt like that the transitions of all of my classes (including ones I was a student in or a teaching assistant in) to online happened quickly and dramatically – one day, we were in class, and then the next, the Heller building was closed.

My Operations Management class was one of the first classes to transition online.  Fortunately, many of the MBA classes are also already taught through the Heller School’s Executive Physician’s MBA, which contributed to a seamless transition. Regardless of the graduate program, every professor had to adapt their classes, whether that included introducing an offline component, uploading additional documents onto LATTE, or utilizing Zoom functions such as breakout rooms for added smaller group discussions. All of the professors were also very flexible with the students, readjusting different classroom requirements and projects to accommodate the changes and challenges that the students were facing. There was also a request for constant feedback from the professors and the Heller Administration to provide insight to the professors and helped them adjust their classes as needed.

I think that one of Heller’s strengths through the pandemic is that there was a push to maintain the sense of the Heller community. There have been official and unofficial events to continue to connect with people the Heller community. For example, the Heller Student Association planned an exciting Heller Trivia Night event which included hundreds of students, staff, alumni, and prospective students. In planning for this event, I recruited my core group of friends from my MBA program – and we won first place!  In true Heller form, my team also decided to donate our winnings as gift cards to Healthy Waltham to help the Waltham community. The Dean also hosts consistently hosts Heller-wide “Cocktails with the Dean”, which is a great chance to see the faculty and staff of Heller in a casual environment.

Over the past few months, my friends and I have managed to stay connected across states and often countries through using Zoom. We will have Zoom calls to check up on everyone, weekly movie nights, and even recently had a fun “Powerpoint Presentation Party” where we presented powerpoints about obscure and interesting topics. While we cannot be in person to connect, I am grateful for technology connecting people I haven’t seen in a long time.

Elizabeth in a cap and gown smiling next to the Heller School Sign

Ready for graduation!

As a 2020 Heller Graduate, the entire graduation process also felt “surreal” at first. Because we were not going to receive the cap and gown until after graduation, I borrowed a cap and gown from a recent graduate to take photos at Brandeis. I think this was the beginning of everything feeling “real” to me. While I watched the online graduation ceremony, it was still disappointing not to be able to see my classmates and my family who were supposed to fly in for the graduation. To help make the graduation more personal, I had two Zoom calls, including one for family and for friends to celebrate. One added benefit of the online ceremony was that I was able to have my extended family, including my grandparents, watch the graduation. Even my Zoom calls were able to bring together from different aspects of my life – high school, college, Peace Corps, and graduate school. In this sense, regardless of the disappointing aspects of graduation, there was still a silver lining! I was able to see and celebrate with more people across the US because of technology. Brandeis has promised an in-person ceremony next year and I am hopeful it will help make the graduation feel more real!

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