Virtual Graduation 2021: “Never stop learning, fighting injustice, or expanding our worldviews”

May 24, 2021

Students in graduation regalia throwing caps in the air in front of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management
Photo Credit: Akshita Sankepally, MBA'21

Heller held a virtual diploma ceremony for its class of 2021 graduates on Monday, May 24. The 241 graduates — 227 master’s and 14 doctoral degree recipients — represent seven programs and 38 countries, speaking 32 languages.

Graduates, friends and family joined the ceremony from as far away as Kyrgyzstan and Nigeria, sharing their messages of congratulations through a constantly active Zoom chat.

Dean David Weil opened the event with reflections on the challenges of the past year, including the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice protests, and urged students to use their Heller education to make a difference in the world.

Dean David Weil in red graduation regalia in front of a Zoom background of the sweeping windows of the Zinner Forum
Dean David Weil

“The concern to effect social policy in a way that advances social justice is a calling, and one that brought us—students, faculty, researchers, and staff—to Heller.  But it must not only be embodied in the roles we aspire to take in our work.  It must be part of the way we act and interact.  How we respond to the divisions that surround us.  How we decide to act in the presence of the insensitive—or uninformed—statement.  How we speak to those who we feel cannot understand.  How we act in the breach, but also in the small moment,” Weil said.

Watch the video and read the transcript of Dean Weil’s remarks. 

Ravi Lakshmikanthan, assistant dean for academic and student services, then conferred diplomas to the 163 graduating students who participated in the ceremony. Then, a student from each of Heller’s academic programs delivered a graduation address, reflecting on this year’s unusual graduate school experience and their aspirations for the future.

Andréa Harris, PhD'21, in a black graduation robe and glasses
Andréa Harris, PhD’21

Andréa Harris, PhD’21, shared her journey from being selectively mute as a child to using her voice to speak on behalf of her PhD cohort, as well as her gratitude for the people at Heller who have supported her.

“Remember the friendships created here: the people who sit up with you, check on your writing, remember your good days and your bad, and cheer you on when you have nothing left in your tank. Remember the mentors who inspired you with new ideas, who offered conveniently-timed nudges to bypass procrastination, or who dropped “just thinking of you” emails with articles matching your interests. Remember the conversations with people who challenged your worldview, gave you alternative ways of thinking, and reminded you of your growth edges,” she said.

Watch the video and read the transcript of Harris’ remarks. 

Peggy Zhang, MBA/MA SID'21, in a black commencement cap and gown in front of vines outdoors
Peggy Zhang, MBA/MA SID’21

Representing the Social Impact MBA program, Peggy Zhang, MBA/MA SID’21, used a Chinese parable to describe what motivates her each day.

“Without action, we would be like that farmer sitting by a tree stump, waiting for change to happen to us. But you have reminded me that no matter how dauting something may seem, nothing can be changed unless we face the problem and take action,” she said. “My fellow graduates, you are all innovative thinkers, resourceful leaders, and strategic problem solvers. The world we knew in 2019 may never exist again, but you’ve shown me that you have what it takes to tackle societal problems we face– to create an even better world for the future.”

Watch the video and read the transcript of Zhang’s remarks.

Brontte Hwang, MA SID/MBA'21, in a commencement cap and gown in front of green vines
Brontte Hwang '15, MA SID/MBA'21

Brontte Hwang '15, MA SID/MBA'21, celebrated the different paths that brought each of her sustainable international development classmates to Heller.

“We’ve all had experiences that brought us to Heller because we realized we can’t solve one issue without addressing the entire ecosystem. We can’t just look at education or women’s rights or environmental issues because they’re all interconnected, which means we’ve got a lot of work to do! But fortunately for us, we’re in this together like different parts of one body and there’s no one I’d rather do this with that you all to make this world a more beautiful place for everyone,” she said.

Watch the video and read the transcript of Hwang’s remarks.

Noah Mark, MS'21, in a black commencement cap and gown outdoors
Noah Mark '19, MS'21

Speaking on behalf of the MS in Global Health Policy and Management program, Noah Mark '19, MS'21, shared how people with privilege, like himself, must recognize it and use their resources to fight injustice.

“While privilege in itself is a problem, the more pressing problems stem from not recognizing one’s own privilege and actively using it to help others. Far too many people have stood idly by, myself included, allowing racism, sexism, and countless other “isms” to pervade our world – now it is our responsibility and obligation to fix them,” he said. “It is thus imperative that we never stop learning, fighting injustice, or expanding our worldviews.”

Watch the video and read the transcript of Mark’s remarks.

Marlana Wallace, MPP'21 in a black graduation cap and robe
Marlana Wallace, MPP’21

Marlana Wallace, MPP’21, representing the Master of Public Policy program, urged her classmates to take their outrage about environmental, racial and other injustices and turn it toward action.

“We must sustain the intellectual and emotional power to imagine the world as it could be, as it should be. To take in all that pain, and still believe we can build a world where everyone has safe housing and nutritious food, good health care and good schools; the means to care for those they love, and the opportunity to develop their creative capacities,” she said. “We have to summon the courage to make what was once considered radical, possible. We need to nurture a curiosity for divergent thinking. We must allow ourselves to feel the fiery hope that calls us to action. Or this vision will not be realized.”

Watch the video and read the transcript of Wallace’s remarks.

Francis Ojok, MA COEX'21, in a commencement cap and gown in front of flowers, a bench, tree and building at Brandeis
Francis Ojok, MA COEX’21

Francis Ojok, MA COEX’21, shared his journey from a school for internally displaced children in Uganda to earning his master’s degree in conflict resolution and coexistence at the Heller School, and his determination to build a more peaceful world.

“Today, as we walk out of the Heller School’s doors, we are the face of social justice. May we harvest the planted seed of seeking deeper understanding before prescribing solutions to the world’s problems. May we step forward as agents of change and peacemakers in our own communities; and may we step back as listeners and learners, creating a space for underrepresented groups of people to take part in and be the face of their community peacebuilding process,” he said.

Watch the video and read the transcript of Ojok’s remarks.

Wendy Macias-Konstantopoulos, EMBA’21, in a black commencement cap and gown
Dr. Wendy Macias-Konstantopoulos, EMBA’21

Finally, representing the Executive MBA for Physicians program, Dr. Wendy Macias-Konstantopoulos, EMBA’21, reflected on how the COVID-19 pandemic tested her physician classmates, many of whom served on the front lines at hospitals across the country.

“For the past 16 months, we have been pushed to the edges of our comfort zones where we had no choice but to stretch and grow. Functioning at the edge between comfort and panic, where commitment and time management must be maximally optimized, our newly acquired knowledge and skill would inevitably transform us into more confident and competent leaders. Completing the MBA while fighting for the lives of our patients, we have climbed our Mount Everest and we have ALL, together, reached the summit. We know how to lead and when to follow, and we must now each tackle our next climb,” she said.

Watch the video and read the transcript of Dr. Macias-Konstantopoulos’ remarks.

After the student speeches, the community watched a video montage of congratulatory remarks from the president of the Heller Alumni Association Board, the chair of the Heller Board of Advisors, all seven program directors, various faculty and staff members, and graduating students.

“We have officially graduated despite the midst of living through a pandemic. I wish you all the very best as you embark on your next adventure. The world is waiting for us. Now we have the tools and education to achieve great things for many!” said Alice Rahelimalala, MA SID’21.

Descriptive Transcript

At Brandeis University’s 70th Commencement Exercises on May 23, Jainaba Gaye, MA COEX'21, served as the 2021 graduate commencement speaker. She said her time at Heller has shown her the reward of going beyond one’s comfort zone in pursuit of goals.