Heller School grads celebrate diversity, altruism

Gregorian asks new alumni to consider their contributions to future generations

Photo/Mike Lovett

They came to The Heller School of Social Policy and Management from across the globe – from Ghana to Indonesia, from Israel to Jamaica – to learn how to make their communities healthier, stronger and more just.

At the Spingold Theater on Sunday, The Heller School celebrated the Class of 2013’s commitment to social justice and civic engagement.

Commencement speaker Vartan Gregorian, president of the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation of New York, called the graduates “ancestors in training,” urging them to leave the world a better place than they found it.

“What have you done to deserve your ancestors?” Gregorian asked the graduates. “What will you do as ancestors of future generations?”

Gregorian, an Armenian Christian born in present-day Iran, has long been an advocate for higher education. He was among the six honorary degree recipients at this year's commencement ceremony.

His resume also includes president of Brown University from 1989 to 1997 and president of the New York Public Library from 1981 to 1989. Gregorian served as a Brandeis trustee from 2006 to 2010.

In his address to Heller graduates, Gregorian stressed the importance of reaching out across economic, cultural and political divides to build stronger, better informed and more engaged democracies.

“You are the people who will break down the walls that we have constructed to separate ourselves from each other,” Gregorian said. “Cynicism has become trendy. Cynicism has fostered dissolution with our institutions, politics and policies just at a time when our nation is facing great challenges. The Heller School has inculcated you against cynicism, against narcissism. It has given you the education and the tools to know that you must never give up on yourselves and you must never give up on America or the world.”

This year, The Heller School awarded 180 degrees to candidates hailing from 46 different countries.

For those graduates, Sunday’s ceremony was a time to reflect and offer one another words of support and wisdom.

Rebecca Loya, graduate speaker for the PhD in Social Policy class, reminded her colleagues that they must use their education for the greater good, rather than personal accomplishments.

Steven Masiano, of Malawi, spoke on behalf of the MS in International Healthy Policy and Management class. Masiano said a defining point of his experience at Heller was the school’s enriching diversity.

“Now, I can talk about other countries in much the same way that you can all talk about Malawi,” Masiano told fellow graduates.

Graduate Jayanta Patra, of Odisha, India, graduated from the Sustainable International Development program. He too said The Heller School's diversity was an invaluable part of his experience at Brandeis.

"All of your classmates bring different knowledge. African people use different methods for community development, Americans use different methods, so you learn to see things differently," he said.

In India, Patra is part of the Dalit community, India's lowest caste, known in English as the untouchables. Before coming to Brandeis, he worked in organizations to protect the rights of Dalits and other disenfranchised communities in India.

Thanks to The Heller School, Patra said he will return to that work this summer with a new lease.

"I have seen how people are living in India and how my community, including me, has been discriminated against," Patra said. " I feel I have more power now to change that."

Some graduates were in disbelief that it was finally graduation day.

Alice Pwamang was lined up with the rest of her classmates in the Sustainable International Development program. Pwamang, of Ghana, came a long way to study at The Heller School.

“When I came to this place and saw how different the system was to the one back home, I thought I was going to give up,” Pwamang said. “Today, I’m looking at my colleagues, in my gown, and it’s like a dream come true.”

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