It was only a year ago when Marcelle Goncalves Meira sat on the Baker Lawn watching the graduation ceremony at the Harvard Business School. At the time, the 27-year-old Brazilian woman had just completed her first year in Harvard’s MBA program with her husband, Pedro.
“I remember I was worried about taking final exams and anxious about whether I had chosen the best summer job for my envisioned career path,” she recalls. “Little did I know that the news I would receive that same week would drop a bomb in my life. A bomb much more devastating than I could ever have imagined.”
Her husband soon would be diagnosed with an incurable form of stomach cancer. Four months later, on Sept. 21, he would die at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston at the age of 28. Both of them had left consulting jobs in Rio De Janiero on their journey to HBS, she coming from Boston Consulting Group and he from McKinsey & Co. A member of Section D, Pedro quickly gained affection for both his warm and witty personality. With him gone, Meira would then complete the MBA program on her own.
ON THE DAY SHE DISCOVERED HER HUSBAND WOULD DIE, ‘THE WORLD MELTED BELOW MY FEET’
Today (May 25), she bravely stood before her classmates at Harvard Business School’s Class Day and shared her tragic experience and what it meant to be part of a community that would rally around her. She delivered the address exactly as she had prepared it with confidence and poise–never once breaking down.
“On that day, my world, as I knew it, melted below my feet,” she told the graduates and their guests. “We were far away from home, far away from our families in Brazil. All we had here was HBS. And in my journey since that day, I have discovered what makes this community so special. Students, faculty and staff, friends and people I had never met. All of you worked together, tirelessly, to help us through our hardest days.
“You cried but you also bravely laughed with us in that cold, but also very vibrant hospital room, where four months later Pedro passed, knowing how loved he was. And in the many months that followed, you kept me from drowning. By listening, by understanding, by engaging me in every possible way. You led me to rediscover fun and ended up helping me to reinvent a complete new life for me. A new life, full of new dreams, new passions and new revelations about myself and what I am capable of. I could never thank you enough.”
HBS AWARDED AN MBA DIPLOMA TO HER DYING HUSBAND JUST A FEW DAYS BEFORE HIS DEATH
Meira recalled that only a few days before her husband’s death, HBS presented Pedro with his own graduation diploma. “To the astonishment of all our friends who rallied around us that day, he held it and said ‘HBS is a place for development. I learned and accomplished a lot here. There are many things that I still wish I could do, but I know there are many people here that will do it for me.’ And he smiled to his mom, and to me.”
Her touching reflection occurred on a beautiful, sunny Boston day, 24 hours before the university’s actual commencement. Marcelle was chosen to speak through an audition process that included more than 50 student speeches. Besides her long-awaited speech, Bridgespan Chairman and Co-founder Tom Tierney returned to the campus from which he graduated with an MBA 36 years earlier to share a pair of what he called “intense personal struggles” (see When Bridgespan’s Tom Tierney Was Told He Was Crazy).
Class Day speeches at Harvard are among the most emotionally stirring delivered by any graduating student in or around commencement exercises every year. Last year’s address was given by a self-styled “bohemian idealist,” graduating MBA Adeola Ogunwole, who is black, a Southerner, and a lesbian (see The Black Lesbian Who Wowed HBS). Two years ago, Harvard MBA Casey Gerald spoke movingly about a near-death experience with armed gunmen in his hometown of Dallas, and how that changed his life forever (The Most Stirring Speech Ever By An MBA).
‘I WOULD NOT BE HERE TODAY IF IT WERE NOT FOR YOU’
But the backdrop to this year’s student speaker made for an extraordinary unusual speech. “I cannot overstate just how proactive, resourceful and impactful you all were in our battle,” said Meira. “You gave us access to the best available treatments and to the best doctors in the world, some of them here today. You coached me on how to best advocate with the medical teams to make absolutely sure we tried everything possible until the very end, which I am confident we did. Your affection created an environment around Pedro that inspired him and captivated an entire hospital. You even kept us fed sometimes, perhaps, a little too well fed.
“But the most important present you gave us was your presence. You were truly there for us, always caring, ever selfless. I truly would not be here today about to receive my diploma with this class, if it were not for you.
“If I may share one thing I learned after emerging from complete darkness, it is that the world is so full of colors that we fail to appreciate. There is so much happiness all around us that we take for granted. As overachievers, we have a tendency to over plan towards huge end goals, and to allow all our happiness to be just a function of their conquest.”
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