Emory’s 172nd Commencement honors this year’s graduates, who move forward as tomorrow’s leaders, poised to serve a changing world.
In the face of challenging times, former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey urged Emory’s Class of 2017 to keep honing their critical thinking skills, embracing the pursuit of knowledge, justice, empathy and truth as they shape both themselves and the world around them.
“When you leave here today, continue the work to ennoble your soul,” she urged. “Find a way to live in the world that by your action serves the greater good.”
In a keynote address woven in lyrically sculpted prose, the acclaimed poet demonstrated the power of language to explore and explain, inspire and challenge, calling upon metaphors within her own life journey toward self-awareness and personal growth.
Speaking to the Class of 2017 — among the 15,000 celebrants gathered on the Emory Quadrangle — Trethewey reminded this year’s 4,615 graduates to “always do the work of empathy — see yourself in others, in their need for justice, mercy, sanctuary. See your own need for justice, mercy, sanctuary,” she said. “Do not believe you are above it all.”
Trethewey, an Emory professor who served two terms as the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate, invited Emory graduates to ask questions, seek evidence and remain open to self-examination, armed with the courage to confront the limitations of their own beliefs.
“This journey, this ongoing pursuit of knowledge, I am suggesting, isn’t just the knowledge of facts, not just intellectual knowledge, but emotional knowledge in which one’s ability to practice empathy is wisdom,” she said. “Remember our Emory motto — the wise heart seeks knowledge.”
Transformation and change were key themes throughout the day, which marked the first Commencement led by President Claire E. Sterk, Emory’s 20th president, who is the first female scholar and administrator to lead the university.
Addressing the Class of 2017, Sterk praised the assembled graduates for their commitment to challenging themselves and others, for their accomplishments and talents, and their hopes and expectations of the world, along with their "commitment to making sure we get it right.”
“We share a commitment to making the world a more equitable and fair place, a peaceful place,” Sterk said. “We are grateful for your commitment to sharing your talent and your compassion — locally, nationally and all over the world.”
“You have the knowledge, the skills, the character, and also the imagination and social conscience to have a major impact,” she said. “You are the leaders of the future.”
Sterk observed that Emory graduates are stepping out into a complex world filled with chaotic and painful realities “that question our courage, stamina and wisdom.” But she reminded students that they are emerging from a compassionate community focused on finding solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges.
“Society doesn’t benefit from drawing artificial barriers between and among us; we benefit from bridges between individuals and nations,” Sterk noted.
In advancing that goal, institutions like Emory are invaluable, she said. “We are incubators for research, drivers of innovation and builders of character. We have so much to offer the world based on our culture — a culture to which you have contributed.
“You made Emory a better place,” Sterk said. “I hope that Emory also made you better.
“Now, you have the responsibility to build on all you have learned, to contribute to the world and to follow your own moral compass.”
"Continue the work to
ennoble your soul"
In her keynote, Trethewey acknowledged similarities to this year’s graduates, who collectively earned a record-setting 4,700 degrees.
“Like you, I am moving on from a place I have known and loved for years,” she said. “I have made friendships and an intellectual community that I will cherish the rest of my life. For me, as for you, it is time to face new challenges, to continue to grow.”
After 15 years at Emory, Trethewey, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing and director of Emory’s Creative Writing Program, will join Northwestern University’s English department this fall.
Surveying the expansive sea of graduates, Trethewey acknowledged there was a time that she could never have imagined returning to the Atlanta community, “which for me is a place of personal trauma and great loss.”
In 1985, Trethewey’s mother was murdered by her stepfather, “just over five miles away from where I now stand,” she explained. “When I left … I thought I could simply run away from it and distance myself from that history that bound me to this place.”
“What drew me back was Emory,” she said. “Being here has been more than just a job for me — it has transformed me.”
In her keynote, Trethewey told graduates that she chose to come to Emory for many of the reasons they did, including an environment that nourished “rigorous intellectual pursuits and deeply enriching and transformative creative and artistic ones.”
But folded into the experience was the challenge of confronting uncomfortable truths. No matter how hard she tried to avoid it, “the past kept finding me, inserting itself into my daily life,” Trethewey said.
While jogging through Decatur Cemetery, Trethewey recalled seeing a section devoted to fallen Confederate soldiers. At the time, she was writing “Native Guard,” which tells the story of an all-black regiment in the Union Army, composed largely of former slaves, who had guarded Confederate prisoners of war.
Those Union soldiers had been largely forgotten, “erased from the monumental landscape, buried in the recesses of our collective history,” Trethewey explained.
The encounter inspired her to write a poem about the Confederate soldiers, “but what came out instead was a poem about the day I buried my mother,” she said.
The poem included the line: “I wander now among names of the dead: My mother’s name, stone pillow for my head,” which was “a beautiful lie,” said Trethewey.
Reluctant to memorialize the name of her mother’s murderer, she had never ordered a headstone. “It was a failure of imagination,” she said, admitting she hadn’t thought to use her mother’s maiden name on the headstone.
But it was a failure that prodded a critical self-examination — a goal that Trethewey urged Emory's newest graduates to also pursue.
In today's tumultuous times, Tretheway told graduates, it is more important than ever for them to move forward as critical thinkers.
“Don’t be ignorant of history, fooled by the false narratives of those who lie about the past for their own gains,” she said. “Don’t squander the years you spent here by becoming complacent as a reader and not challenging your own assumptions, as well as the unsubstantiated claims of others.
“Ask questions,” she said. “Remember the primacy of evidence.”
She closed her address by quoting a line from a poem by her late father, poet Eric Trethewey: "Why are we not better than we are?"
"By asking that question of our individual and collective selves … we can rise above the empty rhetoric of self-interest and self-aggrandizement that characterizes our troubled national moment," Trethewey concluded, "and make of ourselves, the way we lead our lives, poetry."
The Class of 2017 is a diverse group of scholars representing 51 U.S. states and territories and 67 countries. Some 60 percent of graduates are female; 40 percent are male.
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Half the graduating class earned undergraduate degrees, with just under a third earning master’s degrees and 16 percent securing doctorate-level research or professional degrees. Graduates ranged in age from Rubenie Stimphil, a 19-year-old undergraduate in film studies, to 70-year-old William Shapiro, who earned an MBA from the Goizueta Business School.
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But uniting them all was joy in the academic journey.
So on this shimmering May morning, graduates and their loved ones paused to bask in the glow of the moment and celebrate next steps.
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For Naomi Zipursky, graduating with a double major in linguistics and religious studies, it will mean moving from her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, to San Francisco, California, to serve as an engagement coordinator and Springboard Fellow with Hillel International.
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For Emory scholar-athlete Kyle Monk, a pitcher on the Emory Eagles baseball team and quantitative sciences major, it will mean working with an economic consulting firm in New York City.
Jenny Nutovits, a neuroscience and behavioral biology major, will spend the summer working at a law firm in New York City with plans to continue on to law school.
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Albert Amran was initially drawn to Emory because of the leading-edge work being done here on cancer immunotherapy treatment.
“Today’s immunology drugs nearly all came of the labs right here,” he said. Graduating with a biology degree, he’s now headed back home to Houston to attend medical school.
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Reflecting upon their time at Emory, Candler School of Theology graduates and friends Van Lal Sawma, of Myanmar, and Constance Daise, of Atlanta, were encouraging each other.
Sawma should “be a pastor for three years and come back to get his PhD,” said Daise, a practicing attorney who came to Emory to earn a master’s of divinity degree “because God called me.”
Laughing, Sawma insisted that Daise “definitely needs to be a pastor.”
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For parents, it was a day of reflection, pride and gratitude not to be missed.
Following a last-minute accident that left her left leg bandaged and in a brace, Citie Kimura flew 30 hours from Hanoi to Atlanta, via Chicago, navigating airports in a wheelchair in order to see her daughter, Ayaki Kimura, receive her bachelor’s degree in English.
“I had to be here, to be a part of this,” Kimura explained, with a smile.
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Valinda Najjar and her family wore that pride on their lapels — buttons featuring the image of Aliviana Najjar, a pre-med major from Durham, North Carolina, who will next be taking the MCAT with plans to attend medical school.
The first college graduate in the family, “she’s definitely raised the bar,” said Valinda Najjar, who notes her daughter’s academic path inspired her to go back to school to become a nurse and her own mother to return for her high school diploma.
“I always knew that education was the key,” she said. “Aliviana has shown us the way.”
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The Commencement ceremony also marked the presentation of university-wide honors to students and faculty for service, leadership, teaching and mentoring.
Among the honorees:
• Kaitlyn Posa, who majored in English and psychology in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, was the undergraduate recipient of the Marion Luther Brittain Service Award, the university’s highest student award for service and leadership;
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• Jared Greenbaum, a graduating MBA candidate in Goizueta Business School, was the graduate recipient of the Marion Luther Brittain Service Award;
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• Carol Anderson, Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies and chair of the Department of African American Studies, received the United Methodist Church University Scholar/Teacher Award;
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• Carol Rowland Hogue, Jules and Eldeen Terry Professor of Maternal and Child Health and professor of epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health, earned the Thomas Jefferson Award for significant service to the university through personal activities, influence and leadership.
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Emory conferred four honorary degrees during Commencement. In addition to giving the keynote address, Trethewey received an honorary doctor of letters.
Honorary degrees were also presented to the following:
• Taylor Branch, an American author and public speaker best known for his landmark narrative history of the civil rights era, “America in the King Years," received the degree of doctor of letters. His trilogy’s first book, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63,” won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards in 1989. Two successive volumes also gained critical and popular success: “Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65,” and “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68.”
• Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an American anthropologist and primatologist and professor emerita at the University of California, Davis, was awarded the degree of doctor of science. She is the author of five books including “The Langurs of Abu: Female and Male Strategies of Reproduction” (1977), the first book to examine the reproductive strategies of nonhuman primates from the perspective of both sexes; “The Woman That Never Evolved” (1981, new edition 1999), selected by the New York Times as one of the Notable Books of the Year; and “Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection” (1999), chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the Best Books of 1999.
• Claes Tingvall, a Swedish epidemiologist specializing in injury epidemiology, safety rating and safety management, received the degree of doctor of science. At the Swedish Transport Administration, he played a leading role in developing the policy of Vision Zero, a road transport system free of death and serious injury resulting from road crashes.
About this story: Reporting and writing by Kimber Williams; photography and video by Ann Borden, Kay Hinton and Corey Broman-Fulks; graphics by Alex Bundrick and Stanis Kodman; editing by Laura Douglas-Brown, Beth Savoy and Leslie King; layout by Laura Douglas-Brown; technical assistance from John Mills and Beth Savoy. © Emory University