Virtual Graduation 2020: "Creating a better future for our generation and generations to come"

May 31, 2020

Heller held its first-ever virtual graduation celebration for its class of 2020 graduates on Sunday, May 31. The 143 graduates — 139 master’s and 4 doctoral degree recipients — represent seven programs and 40 countries, speaking 35 languages.

Dean David Weil welcomed the Heller community, acknowledging the challenges created by COVID-19 and highlighting Heller's 60 anniversary celebrations, including the social justice heroes shared throughout the year. 

"Graduates, you have been uniquely tested this semester. And you will be tested again. I hope you will find fortification in the experience of weathering this storm together, remembering what it brought out in you and what it brought out among your peers. 

"You are reentering a world rife with divisions, disparities, and inequalities. A world where systemic racism and police violence persist, where social bonds and public trust have been eroded, often willingly by the cynical manipulations of political leaders. 

"Never has the need for people to enter the fray of social policy, armed with knowledge and skills but guided by a social justice compass, been more important and more pressing. I have every confidence that you will take your place in addressing those challenges. Just as you were inspired by someone, your work as you begin your next chapter will be an inspiration for others, including all of us in the Heller community."

Dean David Weil
Following the dean’s remarks, Dr. Ihsan Kaadan, MS’16, currently a resident at Boston Medical Center, spoke about his journey from Syria to the United States, what he learned from Heller, and his current work battling COVID-19 on the front lines. “As a physician working with COVID-19 patients I am reminded of why we do this work... I try to utilize every available resource in the hospital network to empower my immigrant and vulnerable patients who I see on a daily basis. This will not only impact the patients’ lives, but also their families,” he said. “Graduates of Heller, I want you to realize that what made your Brandeis education unique is the leadership vision which has been embedded in every student, that will allow you to become agents of change in this world. The world where we have to take responsibility to achieve our commitment toward creating a better future for our generation and generations to come.”
Then, a student from each of Heller’s seven programs spoke briefly about their experiences and hopes for the future.
Robyn Powell, PhD'20
Robyn Powell, PhD'20

Representing the PhD in Social Policy program, Robyn Powell, PhD’20, shared how she has continuously sought opportunities to advance the rights of people with disabilities. “First as a social worker and then as an attorney, I have continuously sought opportunities to advance the rights of people with disabilities. It is that passion that led me to the Heller School, and specifically, to the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy. Although I loved my advocacy work, I found myself increasingly frustrated by both the quantity and quality of research relating to people with disabilities, especially those who are parents. I decided if no one else was going to create relevant research that was useful to the disability community, I would.”

Watch the video and read the transcript of Robyn's remarks. 

John Valinch MBA/MPP'20
John Valinch MBA/MPP'20

Representing the Social Impact MBA program, John Valinch, MBA/MPP’20, shared how growing up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a primarily immigrant and Latinx community, shaped his dedication to fighting for working-class communities and belief in the power of collective action and solidarity. “Like many Americans, I grew up with little knowledge about class and structural inequalities. That changed with the Great Recession and my parents’ divorce. My mother was laid off after years of devoted service, which forced us to move again and again. When I went away to college, economic difficulties widened for my family and community. Meanwhile, banks, CEOs, and predatory mortgage lenders were bailed out. This opened my eyes to the roots of economic injustice and how institutional systems don’t really support women, working class people, people of color, queer and trans people, disabled people, and immigrants—people who by economic design almost always have to thrust themselves over the chasms of inequity in our society.”

Watch the video and read the transcript of John's remarks. 

Prince Mujumbe Salama, MA SID'20
Prince Mujumbe Salama, MA SID’20

Then, Prince Mujumbe Salama, MA SID’20, representing the MA in Sustainable International Development program, shared how growing up as an internally displaced person and losing his father shaped him, and his appreciation for the support of the Heller community, especially during a challenging final semester. “When in 1996, my siblings and I ran away for our lives as rebels took over our town of Bukavu in Zaïre, today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo; when we suddenly became internally displaced people, walking for hours on an empty stomach and finding solace in anything that looked like food, I learned to appreciate life and enjoy every bit of it. Going through that season, nothing could have told me that today, I would be standing in front of you to give this speech. Class of 2020, would you be the light that our planet so desperately craves for? By giving a smile to those in our communities that need it. By being the voice to the voiceless. By championing actions that preserve and protect our planet.”

Watch the video and read the transcript of Prince's remarks. 

Blessed Ovie, MS'20
Blessed Ovie, MS’20

Representing the MS in Global Health Policy and Management program, Blessed Ovie, MS’20, shared why he decided to pursue a degree at Heller and the obstacles he had to overcome. “I worked for a decade in Nigeria’s public health sector, and during this period I often noticed social factors having a huge impact on public health outcomes. I needed to understand better the interaction of health and social policy to improve access to healthcare. I searched the internet for several days for a school that offers this mix until I found the Heller School. Heller has been a wonderful place to study and be impacted, a community of supportive students, faculty, and staff. Professors are approachable and always ready to listen and give you the support you need. In Heller, you do not only get knowledge from your study program; you get a global multicultural community of great people who see you like family and support mutual success.”

Watch the video and read the transcript of Blessed's remarks. 

Bishar Jenkins, MPP'20
Bishar Jenkins, MPP'20

Then, Bishar Jenkins, MPP’20, from the Master of Public Policy program, shared how his HIV diagnosis spurred him to pursue an MPP in order to change policies for Black and Queer young people like himself. “I knew I had to fight for my life and those of my community. Much of the progress we have achieved in this society has been achieved from those of us who have literally fought back from death to say enough is enough — self-determination is a potent force for change. Heller’s commitment to knowledge advancing social justice has equipped us with the necessary skill sets to tackle inequality and injustice. My impressive cohort will go on to address the most consequential dilemmas of this century.”

Watch the video and read the transcript of Bishar's remarks. 

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

Representing the MA in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence program, Winnie Rugamba, MA COEX’20, shared her journey from Rwanda to Massachusetts, and what she loves about studying with a cohort of students from different beliefs, values, and backgrounds, all fighting to change the status quo. “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.”

Watch the video and read the transcript of Winnie's remarks. 

Shaneeta Johnson, EMBA'20
Shaneeta Johnson, EMBA’20

Finally, Shaneeta Johnson, EMBA’20, represented the Executive MBA for Physicians program, and shared how the EMBA program has given her and her physician classmates the tools to improve health care and health care delivery, especially during disasters like Hurricane Dorian in her home country of the Bahamas, and the current COVID-19 crisis. “I am humbled to stand here representing real-life heroes – those who did not think twice when asked to step up and battle on the front lines to save lives. Some battled from ICU units bravely performing high-risk procedures, while others were deployed to serve in hospital areas well outside of their comfort zones. Still others battled from hospital board rooms, state task forces, and national advisory boards. Classmates, I salute you! Thank you for your service, your selflessness, your kindness, and your bravery. I also congratulate you on completing your MBA amidst these unprecedented times.”

Watch the video and read the transcript of Shaneeta's remarks. 

After the student speeches, Assistant Dean Ravi Lakshmikanthan offered brief remarks and ceremonially conferred degrees on all students. “You too, now stand with the tools needed to do your work. But more than that, you have a community of scholars and practitioners who will be with you along the way as you follow your path, wherever that may take you.”

Nikki Rodriguez, MPP’14, president of the Heller Alumni Association Board, joined the celebration to present the Barbara Wakefield Award, given annually to a student who has contributed significantly to community-building within and outside of Heller. This year, SID speaker Salama was the winner, and he sang "It is so hard to say goodbye" for the community.

Finally, the community heard from program directors and fellow students in a closing video and photo montage. Ashley Nicole Guy, MA SID’20, said, “My time at Heller has been short but super sweet. You've all made me feel part of such an amazing community and I thank you for that. May the future be bright for us all and congratulations all the 2020 graduates.”