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Emory College class orator focuses on power of community

By April Hunt | Emory Report | May 14, 2019

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When Dania Quezada spoke to her fellow graduates as the 2019 Emory College Class Orator, she focused on the impact of community, specifically the Emory community that welcomed and supported her as an undocumented student.

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When Emory Scholar Dania Quezada spoke to her fellow graduates as the 2019 Emory College Class Orator on May 13, she focused on the power of community, specifically the Emory community that welcomed and supported her as an undocumented student – and changed her life.

“There is no shortage of exceptional and talented students at Emory, and they may not know it, but they inspire me,” Quezada said in an interview before her speech. “I want them to recognize that I’m just an example of what can happen when you care enough to love your fellow human being.”

Quezada’s message of finding connections with others and the value of compassion convinced a selection committee of students, faculty and administrators to choose her as Emory College’s only speaker following the university-wide commencement on the Quadrangle.

She was among five finalists in the highly selective process that involved an audition. Quezada’s decision to champion others in her speech encapsulates both who she is and Emory’s central mission to create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity.

Quezada is among about 800,000 young people in the United States who have DACA status, also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows undocumented students who came to the U.S. as children to stay in the country if they work or go to school. In fall 2015, Emory began providing private, institutional financial aid for high achieving, talented DACA students who are able to gain admission.

Quezada is one of the first students to benefit from the policy. She in turn excelled academically, becoming a Dean’s Achievement Scholar after her first year, and established herself as a leader and advocate for students like her seeking access to the opportunities of a college education.

“A citizen of Emory”

In her speech, Quezada began by recognizing Julianna Joss 17C, an Emory Scholar who was among the student leaders who advocated for the needs of DACA students to the Emory administration as the university’s DACA policy was being developed. Quezada recalled watching Joss, a dance major, two years ago during her honors recital, but noted that their “dance” began years earlier, as Joss spoke up for undocumented students before she and Quezada ever met.

Quezada offered their interaction as an example of the way that all Emory students can influence the lives of others.

“You see, you might think this is my story, but it is not, not entirely. It is the story of all of us, who we were as Emory students, and who we can continue to be,” she said. “What Julianna did for me you have done for someone else. In some way or another, you’ve influenced the shape and scope of Emory’s stage for those who are to come dancing.”

Quezada called on her fellow graduates not to lose sight of the community they have built together as they move beyond the Emory campus out into the world.

“Care for one another. Care too much. Make others uncomfortable with your care, but never close your eyes and go about your life thinking the issues plaguing our time are too removed or too big for us to face,” she encouraged, noting that “every day, I am reminded many in this country feel I do not belong, but there has not been a single day in which I haven’t felt like a citizen of Emory.”

Concluding her remarks, Quezada reminded her classmates that “forming part of the Emory body has submerged us in the spirit of citizenship.”

“Take those very best parts of your Emory story and multiply them so we may all share in the harmony you bring,” she said. “And never stop dancing.”

“Passion, empathy and intelligence”

Quezada’s parents brought her and two older sisters to California from Mexico when she was five. She grew up knowing the family was undocumented, ensuring she would be cautious.

With her social life restricted to church, school was her sanctuary. Quezada dove into academics, loving the chance to voice her opinion about what she was learning almost as much as the material itself.

For a student aiming to liberate herself through writing, Emory’s creative writing program was an obvious draw. Quezada was admitted to Emory, but she was worried about money and decided instead to attend a local University of California.

When she realized she couldn’t afford the California campus, she called Emory asking for more details about her financial aid, and discovered that Emory’s new policy would provide her with the resources to attend.

“One of my favorite parts of Emory is that if there is an issue, the university will work with you,” Quezada recalled in an interview prior to graduation. “It’s an opportunity for leadership development that allows students to create sustainable change.”

Christine Ristaino, a senior lecturer in Italian Studies, saw Quezada’s leadership up close. Quezada enrolled in her first-year seminar, but Ristaino did not know about her immigration status until well into the semester. 

Ristaino was so impressed with Quezada that she became a faculty adviser to two organizations Quezada launched: Emory Undocumented Students of America (USA), which advocates for the educational rights of DACA students, and the Mariposa Scholars, which connects first-year DACA students with mentors and resources to help navigate college.

“She has created things at Emory that will thrive after she’s moved on, and done it with such eloquence and devotion,” Ristaino said. “She is such an amazing intellect, but Dania feels so deeply too. She is the very model of how to live with passion, empathy and intelligence.” 

“Building bridges and building community” 

Those qualities earned Quezada selection as a Dean’s Achievement Scholar, part of the Emory Scholars program, during her first year on campus. By then, she had decided on a double major in classical civilization and philosophy.

She demonstrated her practical understanding in her new courses of study when she organized a lecture for Emory Scholars with a keynote on the importance of failure, noted philosophy lecturer Jeremy Bell, who delivered the speech. 

“It is a mark of real maturity in studying philosophy to be able to apply theoretical concepts to real action,” Bell said. “It struck me as remarkable that she demonstrated that maturity because she was so concerned with her community, about the stress students are under.” 

Studying philosophy let her question whether she had an obligation to leave the country she loves in order to remain a good person. It also let her reason through the difference between the law and morality, reaffirming her self-worth.

From the classics, she took away the value of myth and importance of scapegoats in keeping the powerful in charge – and developed compassion for people who must remain fearful for such myths to work.

“Whether it’s lack of jobs or the pain of health struggles, there are very real issues in this country that I don’t think hurting people like me help,” Quezada said. “One thing I’ve learned at Emory is if something isn’t good for the community, it isn’t good for me. If we want to effect real change, we have to see each other’s humanity.”

It’s that concept in action that Quezada credits with her opportunity to attend Emory. She will live those values after graduation, when she will work in an elementary school with Teach for America for two years.

She then plans on law school, and a career as an immigration attorney, to fully embrace her commitment to improving as many lives as possible. Her efforts at Emory already have had an impact.

“I’ve never met anyone who cares that much about building and bridging communities,” said Daniel Hamm, a sophomore international studies major who Quezada encouraged in his efforts to develop a recruitment program for more MLK Scholars from Atlanta schools.

“Dania didn’t always have all the answers, but she always had an ear to listen to us,” added Patrycja Kepa, a sophomore who took over as co-president of Emory USA this year under Quezada’s guidance. “She has this ability to talk to people and create a space where you feel heard.”

Joss, who traveled to Atlanta from London to attend Quezada’s graduation, praised her friend for sharing her story and striving to help others. 

“Dania adds a richness and perspective that hasn’t been part of the conversation in higher education,” Joss said in a recent interview. “Having Dania at Emory makes Emory better.”