Date May 19, 2022
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2020 doctoral and master’s degree speakers to return to College Hill for in-person addresses

Mira Nikolova and Abdullah Shihipar, who respectively earned a Ph.D. and master’s from Brown in 2020, will return to campus to address their fellow alumni during a dedicated Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 28.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When Mira Nikolova and Abdullah Shihipar addressed their fellow graduates at Brown’s degree ceremonies in 2020, the two were not on stage in front of a lawn packed with friends and family, but in front of their computer screens. Masks replaced mortarboards, and there was no sea of graduates processing down College Hill.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival led to the postponement of the Class of 2020’s Commencement ceremonies, with achievements instead recognized through a Virtual Degree Conferral ceremony.

But this month, after a two-year delay, Nikolova and Shihipar will return to Brown to celebrate the time-honored tradition of Commencement and Reunion Weekend the way they first imagined. And each will have the chance to address their fellow 2020 graduates in-person, at a dedicated Graduate Class of 2020 Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 28.

A lot can change in two years, and Nikolova and Shihipar had no way of knowing how pertinent their original speeches would be to the class of doctoral and master’s students who graduated during one of the most unprecedented periods in recent history.

In her original address, Nikolova  — who earned a Ph.D. in Slavic studies — compared graduate students to cacti.

“The cacti thrive in very challenging conditions in the desert — they blossom with beautiful flowers, and they provide sustenance for pretty much every creature in their ecosystem,” she said. “Ph.D. students go through challenging and isolating moments — the process is not for the faint of heart. But we have so much potential to make a positive impact, and I think we should give ourselves credit for that.”

Meanwhile, Shihipar, who earned a master of public health, urged his classmates to find ways to utilize their degrees in ways that advance all of society, not just themselves.

“Given that so many people have supported you, your job when you go out into the world is to then become part of other people's support systems,” he said. There’s an immense responsibility and opportunity right now for people to use their degrees in a way that helps others.”

In this Q&A, the two discuss what’s changed since they received their graduate degrees in 2020, what’s next for them, and what they hope to impart to their fellow Class of 2020 graduates as they return to College Hill for a true in-person Commencement and Reunion Weekend.

Q: Completing your degree in 2020, amid the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, made for interesting timing. What has been your focus, professionally and/or personally, since your graduation?

Mira Nikolova: I think the first year after graduation was very much focused on navigating the pandemic and adjusting to the still-unpredictable “new normal.” There were so many questions, concerns and unknowns about what lied ahead. I'm very fortunate to be part of a small and supportive college community, but even so, it felt very strange and a tad dystopian to start a new job during that year. That experience has certainly given me an appreciation for this past academic year, however — being able to be with my students in person in the classroom, to see their performances, games and exhibitions on campus here at Bowdoin [Editor's Note: Nikolova is a visiting lecturer in Russian at Bowdoin College] to chat with colleagues in our building, and to connect with colleagues across campus. In February, I was also able to attend an in-person conference, at which I ran into one of my former mentors at Brown, Professor of Slavic Languages Masako Fidler, and fellow Slavic studies Ph.D. alumna Irina Kaplun. It was fantastic to see them, give each a hug, and hear how the year has been going for them. 

Abdullah Shihipar: It has been an interesting time to be in public health, to say the least —I did not expect to graduate two months into a pandemic with an MPH. Since the pandemic, I have been focused on using narrative and storytelling tools to document how public health crises like the pandemic are affecting people. I've also been working to interpret and communicate public health information for a general audience, especially as the information continues to change based on what we know about the virus. I do this through my day job as lead of narrative projects and policy impact initiatives at the People, Place and Health Collective — which is a research collective at the Brown University School of Public Health — and through the writing I have done for many publications from the New York Times, to the Atlantic, to Teen Vogue, to Slate. 

Q: From the pandemic to the war in Ukraine and much more, the past two years have unfolded in ways that no one could have predicted. How has your Brown education come into play in helping you either prepare for or contend with significant challenges like these? 

MN: As I hope to highlight in the iteration of my speech that draws parallels between Ph.D. students and the enduring Saguaro cactus, I wholeheartedly believe that our doctoral education has been crucial in helping us navigate challenging situations both in our day-to-day lives and on a more global scale. The critical thinking and analytic skills developed and strengthened through our education and research are, of course, a big part of this. However, I also think the personal relationships we were able to develop over these six (or more) years, the community we found at Brown (which has continued to be present in my life even after leaving Providence — I’m very grateful for the video platforms that made it possible for me to stay in touch with friends and mentors and even attend events remotely), as well as the ability to look for resources and approach problem-solving creatively. Finally, the perseverance that is a key ingredient to success throughout the years of doctoral education has been much needed over the last two years.

AS: My Brown education helped me deal with the challenges these events cause by reminding me of the responsibility and power I have with my education, my experience and my platform. I may not be able to stop all of the harm in the world, but I can contribute to making things better by doing my part with the little platform I have to spread accurate information that helps people and covers the stories of the marginalized. It can be intimidating and easy to turn away from all the bad in the world, but if we focus on what we can do with what we have been given in life and the responsibility we have to others, then these problems become a lot smaller.

Q: What can you share about the message you might offer to your fellow alumni as you return for Commencement and Reunion Weekend? 

MN: I am very excited to have the opportunity to see many of them in person and to celebrate not only our 2020 graduation, but also the past two years. I had originally thought of the cactus analogy as a potential speech idea before the pandemic started in 2020. It has been something that I've had to remind myself over the last couple of years — the resilience that we developed during our years at Brown and our ability to give back to our communities and to help out others will continue to be useful and needed.

AS: Remember why you pursued the field you're in, and remember your time as a new student in the beginning of a program a few years ago. The world has changed in a short amount of time and we face tremendous challenges — but as we face those challenges, we don't need to shy away from being bold and imaginative. We don't have to accept the norm or the status quo. As some are regrettably using their imaginations to harm others, we can use our imagination and knowledge to heal. This moment provides us with a unique opportunity to refresh and revisit our experiences in graduate school to reconnect with friends, colleagues and what excited us about doing this work in the first place.

People might say, “I studied this, or I work in this field that has nothing to do with political science or public health or climate science. My work seems unrelated to the problems at hand.” But a society is more than just a handful of seemingly consequential fields making decisions for the rest of us. Society is interconnected; the work we do in our field can have monumental impacts, even if we don't realize it. Bringing and sharing your talents to the community, whatever those may be, can be of value. Fred Rogers said "look for the helpers." I'll add that we should try to be one of them. 

Q: What advice do you have for students who are just beginning their graduate education at Brown? 

MN: Enjoy every little moment of it — five, six or even seven years might sound like a long time, but graduate school is a life chapter that truly flies by. I catch myself missing the little things the most — spending a few hours writing in my favorite carrel on the fourth floor of the Rock (the side facing downtown Providence was always my favorite), a cup of coffee from the bookstore cafe, chatting with friends on the Main Green after a long day, an evening walk by the river. I'd also strongly encourage new graduate students to take advantage of the opportunities the Brown Graduate School offers beyond the classroom — the Brown Executive Scholars Training program, the Effective Performance workshop, Research Matters, participating in focus groups and more. They're invaluable and provide a chance for grad students to work with and get to ​know some of the wonderful professionals at Brown. 

AS: As a master’s student, you are here for two years, so make the most use of your time at Brown. Step outside of your field, meet people and utilize every service and opportunity there is here. Go to talks and events, use the Nelson Fitness Center, take in the rays in the quad, go see an exhibit, participate in clubs and groups. Step outside of Brown and go and see Providence and Rhode Island. 

Q: What do you hope or expect awaits you in the years ahead? What are you hoping to accomplish?

MN: I very much hope for peace and health globally. The last couple of years have been incredibly challenging and scary in so many ways. I truly hope we can put all of that in the past and in the history textbooks soon. On a personal and professional level, I look forward to developing more courses that showcase the diverse and rich literary and cinematic traditions across Eastern European and Eurasian cultures and to reconnecting with more Brown alums in person again. 

AS: I hope to continue to use my platform as a writer to tell stories that inform, but more importantly, hopefully make people feel a little less alone. My goal as a storyteller, whether that work is through journalism, public health or creative writing, is to make people feel more connected to each other and with their own emotions. I hope to continue to tell these stories through writing and other forms of media; in the spirit of my education, I want to keep exploring new multidisciplinary possibilities for storytelling. I also hope to inspire and train others through teaching and talks on these practices, specifically as it pertains to storytelling and narrative communication in public health. Through doing this, I hope to do my part in helping to build a better society.

Parts of this interview were lightly edited for length and clarity.