COEX Commencement speaker: Winnie Rugamba, MA COEX'20

May 31, 2020

Winnie Rugamba, MA COEX'20
Winnie Rugamba, MA COEX'20

Let me just begin by saying that life is truly full of surprises. I would not have believed anyone telling me in 2015 as I boarded my flight from Rwanda to Marshall, Texas, for college that I would end up in Waltham, Massachusetts, for grad school. I would never have imagined that my graduation ceremony would be happening virtually. But this is a moment to celebrate regardless.

Dean Weil, respected faculty, family, and friends, welcome. To my fellow graduates: We made it! It is with great honor that I speak on behalf of the most vibrant, demanding, passionate, diverse, and strong-willed cohort that Heller has ever witnessed and probably will ever witness: the COEX class of 2020.

Allow me to share a story of a cohort made up of people from almost every single continent, different walks of life, rich work experiences, compelling stories, survivors of war, community changers, former pastors, artists, activists, and individuals with numerous differences—but most importantly, individuals who are tired of the status quo.

It is 2020 and somehow, we are still fighting for the same things that we’ve been fighting for, for ages.  

Being change-makers calls for patience, commitment, determination, and at times sacrifices that could leave us scarred for life. But the hardest part of being a social justice warrior is that you must be willing to look at yourself every day: to check your intentions, to check your biases, to check the source of your passion, to recognize your privilege in whatever form, to understand your role and to know when to show up and when to sit down. It calls for a recognition of our flaws that are reflected in the system that governs this country, our home countries, and how we participate, contribute or benefit from its brokenness.

My cohort was a perfect example of a community that consisted of people with the best intentions at heart but with different beliefs, values, and backgrounds. We clashed, we disagreed, division found its way in, and while it was easy for each of us to point fingers, the reality is that we were all fighting for our truths and what we believed to be right. Some days felt like we were back in high school all over again.

Now, I do not say all of this to criticize my cohort, but to say that this speaks volumes of the kind of place Heller is. Heller is a work in progress with many things that it still has to work on, such as voices that still need to be amplified, and the different shades, nationalities, ethnicities, and communities that still need to be represented. Heller is an institution that is unlearning ways that no longer work by learning how to host ideas, conversations, and classes that at times lead to outstanding essays and other times heated arguments. But regardless of the outcome, Heller refuses to remain comfortable and that is why a cohort like mine was able to thrive. We made it through. I know this speech wasn’t about me, but I can’t end without saying that it was a privilege to be surrounded by hardworking people, a promising future, but most importantly by people who reminded me in different ways to look at myself and to find the cracks within me. I am eternally grateful!

Once again, congratulations to the most memorable cohort Heller will ever witness: the COEX class of 2020!