Emory's 172nd Commencement honors graduates

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | May 8, 2017

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Emory's 172nd Commencement, held May 8 on the Quadrangle, was steeped in time-honored tradition, from the grand academic procession to the collective conferral of degrees.

A time of growth, change and achievement was celebrated Monday morning at Emory’s 172nd Commencement, which featured a keynote address by former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, one of the foremost voices in contemporary American poetry.

The Class of 2017 assembled on the Emory Quadrangle to participate in 9 a.m. exercises steeped in time-honored tradition, from the grand academic procession led by a pipe and drum band to the presentation of honorary degrees and awards and a collective conferral of degrees. 

A crowd of about 15,000 guests began gathering as early as 6:45 a.m. for the day of ritual and pageantry, complete with colorful academic regalia, music and the central ceremony, which were followed by diploma ceremonies for individual schools. 

The event marked the first Commencement led by President Claire E. Sterk, Emory’s 20th president, whose remarks highlighted the accomplishments of undergraduate, graduate and professional students who have experienced “the transformative power of the liberal arts, backed by the powerful force of a major research university.” 

"During their time here, all of our students have experienced a full immersion in the knowledge, discoveries and values of this university,” Sterk said. “We are expecting great things from them.”

This year’s 4,615 graduates earned a record number of degrees, marking a nearly 13 percent increase over the past five years. A total of 4,700 degrees — including 85 joint degrees — were conferred upon students from 51 U.S. states and territories and 67 foreign countries, according to final statistics from Emory’s Office of the Registrar available May 8.

The oldest graduate in the Class of 2017 is 70-year-old William Shapiro, who received an MBA. The youngest is 19-year-old Rubenie Stimphil, earning a bachelor’s degree in film studies. Some 60 percent of this year’s graduates are women; 40 percent are men.

Keynote reflects a poet’s perspective

Trethewey’s invitation to deliver this year’s keynote remarks was in recognition of her wide-ranging achievements as one of America’s preeminent poets.

“Her talent has placed her at the forefront of America’s contemporary poets,” Sterk says. “We are so proud of all she has achieved.”

In addition to directing Emory’s acclaimed Creative Writing Program, Trethewey, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing, served two terms as the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States (2012-2014) and was also named Poet Laureate of the State of Mississippi (2012).

She has received a range of prestigious awards and fellowships for her writing, which includes four collections of poetry, a chapbook and a book of creative nonfiction. In 2013 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement in 2016.

During Monday’s ceremony, Trethewey received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree — among a series of special awards and recognitions presented to students and faculty.

Emory also conferred honorary degrees to three other individuals:

  • 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.” The 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. 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. At the Swedish Transport Administration, he had a leading role in developing the policy of Vision Zero, a road transport system free of death and serious injury resulting from road crashes.