An Untraditional Wellesley Family

Tisha Gomes CE/DS ’98

A photo portrait of Tisha Gomes CE/DS ’98

“My joke is when the Pentagon sneezes, I get a cold.” As the executive director of MIT’s Seminar XXI for over 16 years, Tisha Gomes CE/DS ’98, says this less as a one-liner and more as a matter of fact. She speaks easily about the fact that she manages an elite program designed to educate and connect national security leaders, and that she often sees Seminar XXI Fellows interviewed on the nightly news. The only thing that seems to astonish Tisha is thinking back to her earlier life—how far she’s traveled and how unpredictable her path has been.

We meet in the Brookline, Mass., condo of Jean Kilbourne ’64, the public speaker and filmmaker who received an Alumnae Achievement Award for her groundbreaking critique of advertising. Although they graduated 34 years apart, Tisha and Jean talk together like former college roommates, checking in with each other for exact dates and filling in details of each other’s anecdotes. Jean’s dog settles in Tisha’s lap as she tells me that she has a Havanese, too. “I’m not a religious person, but this is the one moment I refer to as the grace of God,” Jean says of meeting Tisha in 1988.

Tisha was born on a farm in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, and later attended a private high school with help from her extended family. “Everyone chipped in,” she says, but when she wanted to go into medicine, she found it to be unaffordable. At 19, she left Brazil to live with family in Somerville, Mass. Tisha worked cleaning houses, then took the night shift caring for a cancer patient. When she felt her English was good enough, she looked for work in child care. Her second nannying job, lasting nearly 12 years, was with Jean.

While taking care of Jean’s daughter Claudia, Tisha traveled with Jean to lectures across the U.S. (In passing, they mention a tornado in New Mexico and hanging out on a Hawaiian beach at 3:00 a.m.) Tisha laughs that Jean “kept nagging” her to go back to school. She took a few courses at MassBay Community College, but Jean had somewhere different in mind.

When Tisha received her acceptance letter from Wellesley, she doubted she could afford to attend and simply filed it away. With Jean’s help, however, Tisha obtained grants and financial aid, and for the next five years as a Davis Scholar spent her weekends in Clapp Library. “The first semester was so intense, so baffling,” she recalls, partly because it involved a lot of writing. “When I started dreaming in English, things really shifted for me,” Tisha says. She majored in political science with a minor in economics.

Sept. 11, 2001, was Tisha’s first day as an assistant at the Center for International Studies at MIT. Less than two years later, she was in Washington, D.C., starting her new job as executive director of Seminar XXI. With sessions such as “National Economies and Transnational Factors in a Globalized World,” the program recruits renowned faculty from institutions the world over to instruct members of the military and federal agencies on the intricacies of foreign relations. Aside from managing admissions and the program’s budget, Tisha keeps open channels between organizations that don’t usually communicate—and reaches out to those who are reluctant to participate. “We usually get between 50 and 70 applicants from the Navy, and we have to cut it down to 13,” she explains, but she has to be persistent with certain other organizations, such as USAID or the FBI. She travels to Washington for monthly sessions of Seminar XXI, and—though she was shaking the first time she called the Pentagon—is now widely recognized there.

Tisha got married in Germany in 2002 at a ceremony where Jean was the matron of honor, and now lives in Milton with her husband, Stefan, and sons Miguel and Lucas, 13-year-old fraternal twins. They all celebrated Thanksgiving together—dogs included.

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