Date April 15, 2021
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Graduate School speakers to emphasize community, connection at Commencement

Bardiya Akhbari, a Ph.D. graduate in biomedical engineering, and Sonya Brooks, a master’s graduate in urban education policy, will speak about the power of human connection, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Bardiya Akhbari and Sonya Brooks, both soon-to-be-graduating Brown University students, live 3,000 miles away from one another and may never meet. But they have something profound in common: Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation it has mandated at points, they rediscovered the power of human connection.

Akhbari, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering, and Brooks, a master’s student in urban education policy, plan to speak about the importance of connection and community in separate addresses to their fellow Class of 2021 graduates at the University’s Graduate School Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 1. 

In keeping with the University’s annual tradition of elevating student voices at Commencement, the Graduate Student Council selected Akhbari and Brooks as this year’s speakers. The pair will address their peers, many of whom will attend the ceremony in person, and the thousands of family members and friends who will watch the livestream from across the country and world. 

Both Akhbari and Brooks plan to highlight the idea that personal connections can empower people from marginalized communities to advocate for themselves and effect positive change, bringing societies closer to achieving equality and justice. 

“Because we went to Brown, we have the ability to help others — to take their hands and lift them up,” Akhbari said of himself and his graduating peers. “Many people have lost their jobs or their health care during this pandemic. We are lucky: In the middle of all this madness, we finished our doctoral and master’s programs. We need to use our luck and our degrees to help others.”

‘If not you, then who?’

An 800-year-old Persian poem about humanity’s interdependency will figure prominently in Akhbari’s address, titled “Bani Adam: One Essence and Soul.” Akhbari said he plans to focus on one particular line of the poem he remembers from childhood: “Human beings are members of a whole, in the creation of one essence and soul."

“I’ll talk about how our individual accomplishments wouldn’t be possible without our support of one another within Brown,” Akhbari said. “When I first came to the U.S., I loved experiencing that individualistic lifestyle the country is famous for. But after a while, I learned the importance of becoming part of a community, where you receive support and give others support.” 

Akhbari, a biomedical engineer, became passionate about advocating for others from the start of his time at Brown. The native of Tehran, Iran, came to the University in Fall 2016; just months later, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning citizens from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the U.S.

To help students like him feel more welcome on College Hill, Akhbari and a friend founded the Iranian Graduate Students Organization. The group has not only brought students together for cultural events like Iranian New Year but has also worked with the Graduate School to better support Iranian nationals attending and applying to Brown.

Then, he attended a public narrative workshop hosted by University Provost Richard M. Locke. Akhbari had always felt nervous giving presentations, even in his native language of Farsi, and thought Locke planned to share tips on public speaking.

“But it turned out that the workshop was about how to share your personal story and use it to advocate for change,” he said. “It was all about why it’s better to play an active role in the community rather than just sitting on the sidelines waiting for something to change. The provost said to us, ‘If not you, then who? If not now, then when?’ It was really impactful for me.”

We are lucky: In the middle of all this madness, we finished our doctoral and master’s programs. We need to use our luck and our degrees to help others.

Bardiya Akhbari Ph.D. student, biomedical engineering

The workshop shaped Akhbari’s entire experience at Brown, he said, prompting him to continue advocating for his peers as a member of the International Student Advisory Board and as the Graduate Student Council’s biomedical engineering representative. The knowledge that he could reach out to University leaders with questions or concerns and engage in thoughtful dialogue was refreshing to Akhbari, who said the divide between students and administrators is far more impenetrable in Iran.

And his desire to make a positive difference extends to his research and career ambitions. Following in his father’s footsteps, Akhbari studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. As a master’s student at the University of Kansas, he discovered a career path that would allow him to employ his skillset to ease others’ pain: biomedical engineering.

As a Ph.D. student working with Professor of Orthopedics and Engineering (research) Trey Crisco, Akhbari is designing a model wrist joint replacement that could someday make its way into operating rooms, easing wrist pain that millions experience due to arthritis and prior injuries. After the design phase, Akhbari and his collaborators will create a physical prototype, conduct experiments and, if all goes well, initiate clinical trials with patients. He said he plans to seek out a postdoctoral appointment and pursue a career in academia.

“Lots of people who study mechanical engineering go on to design planes and cars and buildings,” he said. “But instead of using my skills to make peoples’ lives more convenient, I wanted to use my skills to make peoples’ lives happier, fuller and less painful. Becoming an advocate on campus confirmed for me that I wanted to work in a field that would make a direct positive impact on others’ lives.”

Connections in chaos

While Akhbari will deliver his speech in-person at the ceremony in Providence, Brooks plans to speak to fellow graduates virtually from her home in Oakland, California.

Brooks has never physically set foot on College Hill: She enrolled in Brown’s master’s program in urban education policy (UEP) three time zones away in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet like Akhbari, she feels she’s leaving the University as a valued member of a tight-knit community.

“The connection I have with my cohort is incredible,” Brooks said. “In spite of the chaos of our lives and of the pandemic, the universe aligned and we ended up here with each other, creating this cadre of lifelong friendships and relationships. And it astounds me how aligned we are in our purpose, even though we come from all different walks of life, all different parts of the country and world. It always occurs to me how, if we hadn’t all experienced similar trajectories or paradigm shifts or shocks to the system, we would probably not be here.”

Brooks’ speech, titled “Our Connection in Chaos,” will touch on that phenomenon: the seismic life shift that can prompt an “a-ha” moment and spark a call to action for many people.

The mother of three experienced her own seismic shift several years ago when her son, then 6, was suspended from school after a white classmate injured him.

“I had spent years volunteering at this school, showing my face, combatting this myth that Black parents aren’t engaged in their kids’ education, and then comes this suspension,” Brooks said. “While meeting with the principal, I was told, ‘Well, I’m sure he did something to deserve it.’ That was an awakening. It catapulted me into a new level of advocacy.”

When I was selected to be a Commencement speaker, at first I felt imposter syndrome. Then I started to think of everything I’ve been through… And a peace came over me.

Sonya Brooks Master's student, urban education policy

Brooks joined “every committee I could find” to advocate for Black children in her East Bay school district. She worked with other parents to create friendly, stimulating spaces for students who faced bullying and disparate disciplinary treatment at school. She became a counselor for promising students of color who she said weren’t getting the guidance they needed during school hours. And with an eye toward a future career in education advocacy, she finished a bachelor’s degree program that had been interrupted by family illnesses and childcare hardships many years ago, graduating with honors from UCLA in 2019.

When it came to choosing a graduate school, Brown was a clear front-runner for Brooks.

“When I read about the UEP program, I thought, this is it,” she said. “Not only can I learn more about what causes the injustices and inequalities that I’ve experienced, and that my children and other children have experienced, but I can also learn how to work behind the scenes to change some of these policies that push certain students in a trajectory of defeat, or of incarceration, or low future earnings and self-esteem.”

After Commencement, Brooks will enroll in a Ph.D. program in urban schooling in California. Ultimately, she aspires to find a career that combines her past advocacy work with her newfound policy expertise. She aims to rise through the ranks and become U.S. Secretary of Education someday.

Like Akhbari, Brooks attended a University-sponsored discussion that caused an inner shift. The Brown Executive Scholars Training Program fellow said that at a recent event, Brown Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Shontay Delalue shared that after many years spent navigating administrative spaces that Black women once hadn’t inhabited, she settled into her current role and felt at peace.

“I broke out in tears, because I didn’t know what peace felt like: Being a mother of Black children, specifically Black male children, my spidey senses are always alert and it’s rather exhausting,” she said. “When I was selected to be a Commencement speaker, at first I felt imposter syndrome. I said to myself, ‘You’re going to mess up, people will think you’re too dark or not worthy, and they’ll wonder why you’re here at an Ivy League institution.’ Then I started to think of everything I’ve been through: Homelessness, domestic violence, motherhood, becoming a first-generation college graduate and a business owner and an evangelist of student advocacy and activism for students throughout California… And a peace came over me.”