Heller MA-COEX Commencement Speaker: Lisette Anzoategui, MA-COEX/SID'15

Lisette Anzoategui, 2015 MA-COEX Commencement Speaker

Members of the Heller School faculty, staff, proud families, my colleagues and dear friends,

The first thing I would like to say is thank you. Not only has the Heller School given me an extraordinary honor but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement speech address have made me lose weight. What we call in the COEX program a win-win situation.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate our academic success, the first thing I have decided to talk to you about is the benefits of facing incredible adversity, setbacks and failure.

The reality is that we, as social change movers and shakers, face daunting worldwide challenges ahead: growing inequality, horrific natural disasters, spreading of infectious disease, climate change, more violent conflict than ever…just to name a few. As Professor Godoy’s door, covered completely with letters of rejection, reminds us – obstacles, mistakes and failures are part of the narrative of success, especially if we can reflect and learn from them.

It’s in facing this adversity that I want to share part of my graduate school experience. On a regular school night this past year, October 17, 2014, while crossing at a pedestrian crosswalk, I was hit by a van…well, actually run over by a van…and in the moment that I was pinned under the van, completely helpless, unable to see my body, I thought that my life was at its end. While luckily I came out with no broken bones, the accident left me with a concussion and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After a traumatic event, it’s kind of natural to have nightmares and other reactions that fade away after a while. But with PTSD it doesn’t fade away, and I felt mania all the time; it was changing my life as I began to withdraw. I was afraid to go out or cross the street due to the fear of being injured but also fear of feeling flashbacks from the event.

I began to open up about what I was going through with friends and staff at Heller. I learned that I was not alone as many other had gone through similar experiences. Their courage and love gave me hope. Their unending support helped me find the healing to begin therapy but also rediscover my beautiful and resilient self that I had become blind to.

It can be summarized by the words of the Greek Historian Plutarch: “What we achieve inwardly will change our reality.”

Adversity gave me an inner security that I had never attained by finishing papers and passing examinations. Crisis taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. It's sort of like squeezing a sponge - you see what is really inside it when the pressure is on. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of gold.

We have all experienced unexpected adversity in our lives and many hard challenges, some even while at Heller. The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for although it is painfully won, it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

These lessons that we gather as we face challenges will be important for our work in peacebuilding and dismantling the big isms: Racism, Sexism, Classism, Speciesism, Heterosexism, etc. And when these challenges seem too great, please remember that just as these systems of oppression are human-made, and as they have been constructed, we can deconstruct them.

My friends:

There is one last thing in life besides immense challenges and uphill battles that can lift the blindfold from our eyes and help us see more clearly.

Sometimes a grand event with loved ones leads us to realize that we are a small part of a larger whole. That is what today is like for me. I am very grateful to the Heller School for this celebration, because in joining you, I have been able to realize that what for me was a treasured two years at Brandeis, is in fact but a brushstroke in a masterpiece that has been created over the past 56 years of its existence. My experience was one of thousands by people from all over the world. Just imagine the impact those leaders and scholars have had in their countries of origin, or the impact they made in the hearts and minds of the other citizens who taught them, or worked with them, or hosted them, or simply shared a meal with them. The waves rippling out from this room are impossible to quantify or measure. But we know they are there. We know, just as the graduates before us, we are changing the world.

Thank you very much.