Commencement 2017: “We are ready to change the world!”

May 21, 2017

See photos of commencement weekend on Facebook.

Heller graduates celebrating.

The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University conferred 172 degrees on Sunday, including 164 master’s and 8 PhD’s in front of a full house of family and friends in Spingold Theater Arts Center.

“Heller was founded nearly six decades ago to drive positive social change through its research, public engagement and training of generations of professionals and scholars. And—perhaps now more than ever—the Heller’s School’s vision of knowledge advancing social justice is critical to our society,” Associate Dean of Research Cindy Parks Thomas, PhD’00, told the crowd at the start of the ceremony.

Shadi Sheikh Saraf

This year’s graduates came to Heller from over 50 countries. They included Shadi Sheikh Saraf, MA SID/COEX’17, who was the Conflict Resolution and Coexistence Program speaker. As the first recipient of the Public Policy and Coexistence Fellowship, she said her decision to study conflict resolution and development was influenced by her experience growing up in Iran during that country’s war with Iraq in the 1980’s. She and her family were forced to flee. “I am a survivor of war! A war that stole the childhood of my generation,” she said. “Yes, living in a country tied up in revolution, war, economic crises and decades of sanctions motivated me to devote my life to the betterment of people’s lives, humanitarian assistance, conflict prevention and post-conflict healing.”

Read Shadi Sheikh Saraf, MA SID/COEX’17’s commencement speech

Mahmoud Nabulsi

For Mahmoud Nabulsi, MA SID’17, who spoke on behalf of the Sustainable International Development Program, the decision to attend graduate school was similarly clear. “My experience in working with governments, organizations, youth workers, activists and individuals accumulated over the past decade. At a certain point I felt that I’m occupied with a static mindset that needed to be decolonized,” he said. “Knowing for a fact that education is the most powerful weapon to uncover my inner strengths and weaknesses, I decided to pursue my higher education in an enabling academic institution, and Heller was the choice…I insisted that I would not consider other options. It might sound crazy, but to me the only reason that I would leave my home country of Jordan was to come to Heller.”

Mahmoud Nabulsi, MA SID’17’s commencement speech

Ly Nguyen

For Ly Nguyen, MS’17, graduating was both “an honor and also an anomaly.” Nguyen was the first generation in her family to be born in the U.S., the first generation to graduate college and now she was the first generation to receive her master’s degree. In addressing the crowd as the MS in Global Health Policy and Management Program speaker, she expressed fear for the United States’ future due to today’s political climate. “Under our current presidential administration, we have a dangerous fear of immigrants and people from other countries that plagues our history. We seem to be evolving over time as a more divided nation, straying further away from us as the United States,” she said. “What is often forgotten is what makes America wonderful: the infusions of different cultures and people that creates a more robust and thriving country.”

Read Ly Nguyen, MS’17’s commencement speech

Steven Siegel

Steven Siegel, MPP/MBA’17, who represented the MBA in Nonprofit Management Program, spoke of his classmates’ profound impact on his life after he struggled with addiction. He celebrated three years of sobriety on the day before commencement. “I am fighting for my recovery, and I am fighting for a socially just society,” he said. “And you know what keeps me fighting? What keeps me going to trainings, and actions, and meetings and events? It’s y’all not taking any of my crap. It’s seeing you all put in the work. Going out of state to a protest and seeing one of my classmates leading the action keeps me going. Seeing fellow white classmates consistently putting in the extra effort going to trainings on how to be good accomplices keeps me going. Reading Facebook posts of alums who successfully fought to keep their neighbors from getting evicted in a rapidly gentrified area keeps me going. I need to keep up with you all—I don’t have time for relapse. You all keep me going. You keep me strong. You all put in the work and I do not want to be the one not picking up my own slack.”

Read Steven Siegel, MPP/MBA’17’s commencement speech

Alex Montgomery and Avery Brien

Alex Montgomery, MPP/MA WGS’17, spoke on behalf of the Master of Public Policy Program, with Avery Brien, MPP’17, standing alongside, holding a sign that quoted Brandeis Assistant Professor Jasmine Johnson: “Critique is the highest form of love.”

“For me as a black person, a person with enslaved African ancestry and history, I’m here to tell you that it is a myth to think nothing existed before the current world in which we live. That cultures and systems didn’t exist before our current ones,” Montgomery said. “As a group of people graduating from an institution believing in knowledge advancing social justice, it is imperative that we be mindful of what constitutes social justice. The way we understand our history shapes the way we understand our world in its modern context, the way we understand our pain, our oppression, our selves…When we leave here today, we must hold our institutions, our families and ourselves accountable to addressing the lives of people that are closer to the pain. We must understand that many of the challenges facing us affect folk differently within our multiple identities and characteristics. What may worry you, kills people who look like me. Right now is not the time for buzzword activism. We must live the equity and intersectionality that we truly believe.”

Bevin Croft

The PhD in Social Policy Program speaker, Bevin Croft ’03, MPP’10, PhD’17, reflected on her extended Brandeis journey. “This is my third and final degree from Brandeis, and my second from the Heller School. When I arrived at Brandeis as an undergrad in 1999, I was an earnest young woman, passionate about social justice, and committed to using my drive and intellect to contribute to a more equitable world,” she said. “Three degrees, two children and one dissertation later, I leave Brandeis an earnest young-ish woman, still passionate about social justice. My commitment to a more equitable world has never wavered. On the contrary, it has been bolstered—again and again—by fellow students and mentors whose passion matches mine.”

Read Bevin Croft ’03, MPP’10, PhD’17’s commencement speech

Dr. KMarie Reid

Dr. KMarie Reid represented the first graduating cohort of the Heller Executive MBA for Physicians. When she applied, Reid said, she was “in the throes of a major career transition, and later dealt with unexpected health challenges.” But in going through the EMBA program, she met classmates who helped her both heal and grow. “As an individual, one’s view can be so limited, so narrowly focused. Our group illustrated how important the diversity of thought, experience and vision are, and how diversity helps to bolster a team,” she said. “My view of the world, the way I approach problems, teams, in fact life, have been forever changed based on these interactions.”

In closing, Reid offered three lessons she learned about future leadership: lead with fairness and compassion; follow your passion; and resilience is necessary for success. “As we move into the future, do so with courage and confidence,” she urged her fellow graduates. “The Brandeis faculty has prepared us to spearhead change in America and globally. I predict that our influence across our respective fields will make the Heller School for Social Policy and Management proud of this graduating class…We are ready to change the world!”

Read Dr. KMarie Reid’s commencement speech