COEX Commencement Speaker: María Fernanda Cabezas, MA COEX’23

May 21, 2023

Maria Fernanda Cabezas wearing a cap and gownDean Maria Madison, faculty, friends, family, and the COEX graduating class, I’m honored and grateful for standing here and having the opportunity to represent my cohort today.

I am from Chile. As you may be aware, military dictatorships subjugated most Latin American countries during the last century, causing gross human rights violations. Chile was not exempt. Although the Chilean government had transitioned into a democracy by the time I was born, the years of authoritarianism still tormented people and intensified social inequality. That social and economic injustice motivated me to pursue my studies in political science and later an MA in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence here at the Heller School.

But this journey was not easy. I arrived in Massachusetts in 2020, following my husband in his studies. I thought it would be an adventure, and it was — just not as I imagined. Being outside my comfort zone was hard. For the first time, I recognized how much I missed my mother nosing around. Furthermore, my level of English prevented me from communicating with others as I would like to. I couldn’t even go to the store alone! I felt powerless.

I know I am not the only one who has overcome similar challenges. Many of you also have left loved ones behind to pursue your dreams. Some of you have flown from countries in permanent conflict for safety. Some of you have experienced harassment and discrimination due to social categorizations. And yet, you have contributed to improving this world by questioning the social, political, and economic establishment. I couldn’t be prouder of what we do every day.

Although it hasn’t been easy, we have had a lot of fun. Many laughed at the hilarious SID-COEX memes war in our Heller Family WhatsApp group. One meme represented COEX as the new Barbie movie and SID as the new Joker movie. SID students were depicted as stressed about their assignments, while we, COEX students, were always happy, hanging out and drinking all the free coffee in the Zinner Forum events. And it may be true — I don’t want to break the SID-COEX ceasefire because I learned something about negotiation through the program. But, maybe, COEX is pictured as the happy Barbie world because, despite the gross human rights violations we study daily, we still believe in a better world and want to continue working toward peace and justice. We want to believe that violence can decrease. We want to believe in the better angels of our nature.

Finally, I thank the Heller School for helping us follow our goals and for creating academic development and spaces to learn from each other. I want to thank my COEX classmates and faculty, particularly professors Pamina Firchow, Peter Dixon, and Sandy Jones, for their academic advice, expertise, and consideration. To my husband and parents for always encouraging my cultural and intellectual enrichment. Without their persistence in my wellness, I couldn’t have done everything I did these last three years.