Student Voices

Heller COEX students are simply amazing. We believe that our program attracts people who are uniquely driven to nonviolent peacebuilding actions that incorporate complex cultural contexts and empower local communities. Our students come to Heller with an already-impressive array of skills and experiences, from military veterans and humanitarian aid professionals, to Peace Corps members and grassroots organizers. On this page we have collected student quotes, blog excerpts and stories, letting our students speak for themselves.

Natalie Hermida-Cepeda, MA COEX'19 (Colombia)

“I come from a country where there was war for 52 years,” says Natalia Hermida-Cepeda, whose father was murdered as part of the ongoing conflict in Colombia when she was young. “But the way my mother raised me motivated me not to hate others. She made me see the other side of the story, instead of just war and conflict.”

She joined Model UN as a teenager and realized that diplomacy was the path she wanted for her future. After completing her university studies in international law and history, Hermida-Cepeda spent four years in Egypt working with a United Nations-affiliated NGO teaching young children, then worked as a Colombian consular officer for three years in Lebanon.

Hermida-Cepeda was drawn to the way Brandeis integrates Jewish ethics and values into its degree programs, given the strong Jewish roots in her home town of Barranquilla. At Heller, the real-world experiences of her professors have inspired her to find new solutions to ongoing conflicts.

“I’m really, really happy here, with how much I’m learning and seeing everything from other perspectives,” she says. “My professors are convinced there’s a resolution for everything. A lot of us came from war zones, where people just gave up. They show us different ways to do things and what’s possible.”

After completing the COEX program, Hermida-Cepeda plans to continue her diplomatic service in the Middle East, focusing on improving the lives of vulnerable children throughout the region.

“My dream has always been UNICEF,” she says. “I want to do multilateral diplomacy with children. I think children are the future. I believe they can change everything.”

Head shot of COEX student Phoenicia Lewis
Phoenicia Lewis, MA SID/COEX'16, United States

Phoenicia Lewis, MA SID/COEX'16 (United States)

Intersectionality of identity and disciplines: race, gender, sociology and development

Phoenicia Lewis attended the 45th Annual Meeting of the Association of Black Sociologists in Chicago, Illinois on August 20-22, 2015. While there, she gave a presentation titled “Strangely Undemocratic Doings in the Shadow of the World's Greatest Democracy: Concepts of Progress Through the Lens of a Black Female Development Practitioner." The following are her reflections on the conference proceedings. You can read the whole story here.

The first session I attended at the Association of Black Sociologists conference was a screening of a film, Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights. As I watched footage of female civil rights leaders talk about the feelings of minimization they experienced from black male civil rights leaders, my excitement for my own panel on the last day grew. It is a story all too common in social movements: those who experience marginalization often marginalize others.

The hard work, sacrifice, and enthusiasm of female civil rights organizers and activists was exploited by men, who used their presence and eagerness to persuade politicians to focus on the discrimination they faced as black men. Black women were encouraged to continue the fight with the promise that their issues would be addressed later. Over 40 years after Dr. Martin Luther King was killed--sparking riots that begin to decelerate intensity that characterized the movement--the Black Lives Matter movement emerged. Read more.

Head shot of COEX student Jaffar Alizadeh
Jaffar Alizadeh, MA SID/COEX’17 (Iran)

Jaffar Alizadeh, MA SID/COEX’17 (Iran)

"We learn how to make an impact where no one else can"

“COEX provides both theoretical knowledge and practical skills to promote nonviolence. There can be no peace without development and no development without peace.  My background is in economics and for a long time I believed that development is an economic phenomenon. This program provides a completely different approach to development, in which economics is one aspect out of many.

It is really incredible that at Heller there are so many approaches to nonviolent interventions that I am learning to master. We can think about any social problem and try to design a solution for that. Most of our papers and essays are about addressing a problem or conflict, analyzing it and suggesting some solutions. At Heller, I learn how to think logically, how to put my ideas into the right frameworks and how to design an intervention so my idea or solution can cause a lasting impact. We have the advantage of using hundreds of other brilliant minds here for help. Everyone brings a unique point of view at the Heller School.

I want to make an impact wherever I am. I believe the COEX program is turning me into an effective nonviolence practitioner. I think an entrepreneur is someone who can make an opportunity and build a business at the right time and right place. A development and coexistence practitioner can/should do the same thing at the wrong time and place. We learn how to make an impact where no one else can or when it is not economically feasible.”

Head shot of COEX student Wafaa Arbash
Wafaa Arbash, MA SID/COEX'16 (Syria)

Wafaa Arbash, MA SID/COEX'16 (Syria)

"While I ran to war, she ran from it": The story of a US veteran and a Syrian expatriate (Excerpt)

In this student-authored story, two students offer their unique perspectives on finding humanity amid the dust of war. The following excerpt is by Wafaa Arbash, a Syrian expatriate. You can read the whole story here.

“I want everyone to understand that refugees are human beings, and that they have the right to live their lives the way they want. They deserve a better place, away from the daily sounds of bombs. No one is guaranteed a life free from terrible things. It breaks my heart to see that most countries are not welcoming to refugees, and treat them poorly. Let’s imagine that these people are your family. Is this how a person treats family?

European countries are now experiencing the effects of the conflict in Syria as refugees pour across their borders. Many generalizations have arisen about the refugees, and in these generalizations, humanity is lost.

It is my hope that Syrians will rebuild Syria again, with an inclusive community. Let’s engage our hearts and work together to save our humanity, to write a great history and to make tomorrow better for everyone.” Read more.

Head shot of COEX student Jennan Al-Hamdouni
Jennan Al-Hamdouni, MA COEX’16 (United States)

Jennan Al-Hamdouni, MA COEX’16 (United States)

Focusing on a career in humanitarian aid

Jennan’s calling to development and peacebuilding could be seen well before she arrived at Heller. From her undergraduate studies onward, she worked as a medical volunteer, a field journalist, and a youth and community development volunteer in Southeast Asia, Central America, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Her experience as an Iraqi-American and her international work combined to forge a long-standing commitment to help others living in conflict zones. “I didn’t grow up in Baghdad, and I could have,” Jennan shares. Ultimately, this commitment led Jennan to pursue a degree in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence (COEX) at the Heller School. During her time at Heller, Jennan was among the first to add the program’s semester-long concentration in Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Management.

“It’s very humbling to be in a room full of colleagues who have and continue to devote their lives to alleviating human suffering and making societies more just,” Jennan says as she explains how her COEX concentration experience has inspired her humanitarian work. “The COEX program helped provide me with a profoundly passionate and experienced network of faculty and peers from all over the world and who are renowned in their respective fields.” 

Jennan’s humanitarian focus landed her an internship with Conflict Dynamics International (CDI). Today, she works with CDI’s Humanitarian Access and Negotiation Support Unit, where she supports monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian access organizations in armed conflict contexts, conducts research, and contributes to workshops and publications. Her work with CDI involves regular contact with humanitarian practitioners in current armed conflict and emergency contexts. She says, “I got into my job, sat at my desk and realized, ‘Wow, I know how to do this.’”

Julia Szendro, COEX'18

Julia Szendro, MA COEX’18 (United States and Hungary)

Conflict Resolution in U.S. Corrections and Re-entry

“My work focuses on the social inclusion of marginalized communities, and building state and local capacity for conflict resolution. Specifically, I have been looking at ways to engage the public in the reintegration of formerly incarcerated people, and embedding conflict resolution into both correctional programing and administration.

Ultimately I hope to support prisons and jails within the U.S. in becoming less traumatizing environments for staff and incarcerated people alike. I hope to do so by building programing that helps incarcerated people and correctional staff develop their capacity for conflict resolution. I would also like to develop leadership and public engagement in reintegration and prison reform on a national level.

I chose the COEX program at Heller because I appreciated how much thought went into the design of the degree and the international perspective. I also felt I could gain a lot from the Heller community, including the faculty and student body.  A degree in conflict resolution and coexistence perfectly aligns with my goals following graduation and will support me in working towards the social inclusion of marginalized communities in the U.S.