Meet the women advocating for change

A look at the work and research of graduate students at the Heller School.

Six students from the Heller School pose for headshotsPhoto/Gaelen Morse

Top images, left to right: Ilana Fitzpatrick MPP’24, Ophelia Delali A. Akoto Heller PhD ‘26, Vilma Uribe, Heller PhD’26. Bottom left to right: Jamie Morgan, Heller PhD’23, Kaitie Chakoian, Heller PhD’24, Hannah Wilcove MPP’23

Brandeis has a long history of women advocating for change. From Eleanor Roosevelt, a founding trustee of the university; to Pauli Murray, unsung hero of the civil rights movement; to University Professor Anita Hill.

Today, students across campus are getting ready to lead the way in the next wave of change.

BrandeisNOW spoke with six graduate students at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management to learn more about their research, program highlights, and hopes for the future. Each of the students has a common goal - improving the future lives of women.

Jamie Morgan, PhD’23

Her work: Prior to her doctoral studies, Jamie served as senior staff for now-Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg while he was mayor of South Bend, Indiana. During this time she managed policy, special projects, and legislative affairs. She also served as the director of Pro Choice South Bend, helping Whole Woman’s Health Alliance open the only abortion clinic in Northern Indiana.

She chose to attend the Heller School because it provided her with the flexibility to pursue her niche passion for abortion advocacy work. “Working with mentors like Anita Hill, who have this social movement expertise, has been an amazing experience. It’s given me the opportunity to build my own adventure and step into that legacy of social justice.”

Why she does it: “I’m very motivated to study abortion research. Access to reproductive healthcare, especially for women, is one of the most central parts of our lives,” said Morgan. “Our reproductive aspects affect our future. It’s essential for people to be able to decide if and when to have children.”

Kaitie Chakoian, PhD’24

Her work: Outside of her work at Brandeis, she is the campus policy manager for End Rape On Campus, a national organization working to end campus sexual violence. At Brandeis, she teaches a section in the master’s of public policy program on policy approaches to gender-based violence. Her dissertation focuses on the experiences of college sexual assault survivors navigating the education, healthcare, and criminal-legal systems in the aftermath of violence.

“Our biggest priority is to help survivors in the aftermath of violence as they’re navigating these systems,” said Chakoian. “We want to not only improve the resources we have for survivors, but also our prevention efforts.”

Why she does it: "I realized there’s this undercurrent of power and violence in our everyday life. This is the place that my passion and drive fits,” Chakoian said. “I have a big lofty goal of trying to shake things up and make life better for survivors.”

Ilana Fitzpatrick, MPP’24

Her focus: Fitzpatrick chose the master’s of public policy program because she was able to develop her own concentration, focusing on women's health. With the help of her program mentor, she’s carving out a plan that fits her passions.

Michael Doonan has been instrumental in helping me map out my plan for after graduation. We’ve outlined which courses are important for helping me get to where I want to go,” said Fitzpatrick.

Future plans: Her dream role and plans for after graduation? Creating a nonprofit that provides mobile gynecological services to those in need.

“There’s this challenge in finding a gynecologist that doesn’t make patients feel shame. It’s even harder for those living in areas that don’t have access to these services,” said Fitzpatrick. “My goal is to empower those who have historically been oppressed. I feel like it is my responsibility to give back.”

Ophelia Delali A. Akoto, PhD ‘26

Her work: Prior to attending Brandeis, Akoto researched the COVID pandemic’s impact on women’s work. She served as a fellow at Vital Voices Global Partnerships in Washington D.C., a network that empowers women to build businesses and apply for political positions. Given the impact that the pandemic had on working women in particular, the organization wanted to know how it could help empower the women affected.

Akoto conducted qualitative research, interviewing women within the Vital Voices network from around the world. She found that despite the tremendous impact of the pandemic on their work, the women she interviewed were resilient.

“What was fascinating was that none of the obstacles stopped them,” said Akoto. “They were taking care of their children and sick family members while managing their businesses. They just kept going.”

Why she does it: For Akoto, her focus has always been gender equity. “We’re pushing for a society where women have the same opportunity as men,” she said.

Through her doctorate program at Heller, she’s looking to better understand women's economic empowerment, education of girls and racial equity research.

“My mentors within the Heller School have shown me how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” said Akoto. “I’m not even a year into the program, but they’ve already shaped the way I think.” 

Vilma Uribe, PhD’26

Her work: After completing her master’s in conflict resolution and coexistence, Uribe continued at Heller as a PhD student, studying economic and racial equity.

Most of her career has focused on working in anti-violence organizations, ranging from shelters to community health centers. She is currently the director of policy and systems Advocacy at REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, a program that addresses systemic and legislative barriers while expanding support for survivors of domestic violence.

In each role, her focus is supporting survivors in bettering their everyday lives. One of her most memorable moments was working with a woman in the shelter to find housing.

“After speaking with this woman, I discovered her dream was not only to find a place to live but to own a home of her own,” said Uribe. “That was pivotal for me and has shaped how I see advocacy now. As a shelter advocate, I was socialized to think that homeownership was not within reach, but that’s not true. As a society, we can expand and create opportunities for survivors to pursue their dreams. Since then, my work has focused on creating opportunities for survivors to thrive, not just survive.”

Why she does it: “My goal is to expand opportunities for survivors and people of color who have been historically marginalized in society,” said Uribe. “I always ask myself, ‘how do we support people in pursuing their dreams?’”

Hannah Wilcove MPP’23

Her work: Prior to attending Heller, Wilcove worked as a field organizer on local, state, and federal Democratic campaigns. Her work focused on abortion access, researching how states with pro-choice legislation can expand abortion access for areas in need. She chose Brandeis because she wanted to find a program that aligned with her passions for advocacy.

“I wanted to pick a program that was focused on the lives of actual humans. I appreciate the focus on social justice at Brandeis.”

Why she does it: “As a woman, many of the policies in place affect me directly, like they affect half the population. But more than that, patriarchal systems ultimately hurt all of us,” said Wilcove. “It’s important to elect good people who actually do what they promise and work to change these systems.”

Her future plans: Wilcove plans to pursue a career in policy by working at an advocacy organization in the Washington D.C. area.

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