Bouquets of flowers, fist bumps, decorated graduation caps, the love of family and friends, shouts of joy at hearing graduates’ names read out, and ever so many phones snapping selfies.
Everyone has a favorite aspect of Commencement. Nothing, though, beats “walking” — each graduate’s moment to shine coming across the stage as their name is called.
Commencement at Emory was virtual in 2020, which is why returning for an in-person ceremony was especially meaningful for hundreds of members of the Class of 2020 and their family and friends. They gathered at the Georgia World Congress Center late Saturday afternoon to do what the pandemic prevented last year — come together to celebrate a special form of perseverance that will forever be associated with this class.
More than 600 graduates and their 1,200 guests attended in person, joined by an additional 2,600 online.
Presiding over the ceremony was President Gregory L. Fenves, who took the helm at Emory in August, after the class had graduated. But while he didn’t get to serve as their president, “I can hardly think of a day that has gone by this year that I didn’t hear or learn something about you — about your brilliance, your resolve, your creativity and talent, and above all else, your heart,” Fenves told the Class of 2020.
“Everyone has their story to tell, how the global pandemic affected them during a time unlike any other,” he said. “Your story has been shaped by this pandemic, by adversity, but not in the way you might think. Instead of allowing difficult circumstances to derail you, you seized the moment, using it as an opportunity to engage, serve and excel in your chosen fields and disciplines.”
All Together Now
The Class of 2020 ceremony was one of 15 Emory events taking place May 14-16, as the university also held in-person Commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2021.
Following the president’s remarks and the showing of “Class of 2020: One Year Later,” a video highlighting the reflections and activities of this diverse group of graduates, many of Emory’s deans spoke, lauding the class for their resilience, determination and care of one another during the previous academic year.
“For me, you will always be a special class. There is a lot that I wish I had the time to tell you right now — how proud I was to be your dean at Emory, how much I admired the way you took care of one another through the pandemic, how excited I am about what you will do with what you have learned and experienced at Emory,” said Michael Elliott, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences.
“But what I most want you to hear from me today are two words: Thank you. Thank you for being such wonderful students during such a challenging chapter in American history.”
Linda McCauley, dean of the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, invoked a list she had shared with her graduates one year ago. She asked to add another item, one that was on the minds of the other deans as well:
“Be compassionate,” she said. “The world is in desperate need of civility and compassion. There is a desperate need for advocacy in our country. We encourage you still to speak out against inequity and work together for solutions.”
Meet the Class of 2020
Who, then, were the students journeying, in some cases, hundreds of miles — from new jobs, graduate schools and recently established home bases — for the chance to celebrate academia’s traditional rites?
Bethany Greene, an Emory College graduate who majored in economics, came from Denver, Colorado, where she works as a research associate.
Rachel Marlowe, an Emory College psychology major, came from Nashville, Tennessee, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in child studies from Vanderbilt University.
Oxford College alumnus Sudeep Aditham, who graduated from Emory College with a degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology, came from San Jose, California, where he is working in a research lab at Stanford with plans to go to medical school.
Wearing a student-athlete stole over his black gown, cross-country team member Andrew Kliewer arrived from Philadelphia, where he is in law school at the University of Pennsylvania, building on his double major in political science and economics as he looks toward a career in government.
Why come back? “I just miss Emory too much, just tremendously,” he explained. “Seeing the campus and getting to walk around — it’s that sense of closure, really, because we never really got that.”
Parents, of course, had their perspective as well. Cornelis Meijaard’s daughter Moira graduated from Emory College in 2020 with a double major in English and economics and currently works as a financial analyst for Comcast.
“My daughter is very level-headed, so she understood last year, as we all did, considering what happened all over the world, that it would be selfish to dwell on what we missed,” Meijaard said. “We had every confidence that Emory would do something for these graduates in the future.”
As they waited for the ceremony to start, Jennifer Chen and Kristine Taylor, both 2018 Oxford College graduates, posed for photos in front of the banner for Goizueta Business School, from which they graduated in 2020 with bachelor’s degrees in business administration. Both are living in Atlanta, where Chen works as a financial analyst and Taylor is a consultant.
“I feel like after working so hard for four years, we deserve this,” Chen said, adding she was also excited by “coming back and seeing some of my friends, because as the Class of 2020 we wrapped up really suddenly, and I didn’t really get to say goodbye.”
Cheered on by loved ones including two of his three children, Edward Menifee Jr. came to celebrate his master’s degree in religious leadership from Candler School of Theology. Since graduating, he has become a chaplain at Emory Healthcare at Wesley Woods.
“I enjoyed the journey to getting this degree because it is a degree that really defines what I am called to do,” Menifee said.
In addition to Saturday’s Class of 2020 ceremony, Laney Graduate School invited 2020 graduates to join with 2021 graduates in its ceremony on Friday.
When Deborah and Kimbel Murphy placed a doctoral hood on their daughter Jordan R. Murphy’s shoulders, it represented two important milestones. First, it was the public recognition of Murphy’s third degree from Emory: a PhD in nursing. Second, as her mother says, “She is the first PhD in our lives.”
After first attaining a bachelor’s degree in biology at Spelman College, Murphy earned her BSN and MSN at Emory’s nursing school and now serves as director of operations for Community Advanced Practice Nurses of Atlanta.
She wasn’t going to miss the chance to be part of an in-person ceremony this year, and her mom agrees that it was a day worth returning for: “It’s been a whirlwind of a year and she’s worked very hard to get everything she has. I feel incredibly fortunate to be here with her today.”
Richard Purcell, who received his PhD in religion in 2020, also returned to participate in the Laney ceremony. After serving as a visiting assistant professor of religion at Florida Southern College, he is looking forward to his next role as the all-school chaplain and religion teacher at Saint Mary’s Hall, a preparatory school near San Antonio.
“I want to help students shape their moral imaginations,” he says. “I want to help them figure out who they are and what they can do in the world.”
An Example for Future Generations
While the Laney ceremony recognized graduates at their seats so that their loved ones could participate in the doctoral hooding ritual, those attending the Class of 2020 ceremony walked across the stage one by one, relishing the opportunity to finally hear their names called.
A couple of scene-stealers appeared during the graduates’ walk: two Class of 2020 students had in tow their children, who were cheered by the audience. Given their youth, they might not remember the day as they grow up. However, they can always go back to the words of Emory’s president about their parents and the other members of the class.
“You didn’t waver. You didn’t turn back. You leaned into the challenge and called upon your courage. And more than anything else, you had your exceptional talent to carry you through it,” Fenves said. “The example the Class of 2020 set for future generations of Emory students will always be remembered.”
About this story: Published May 17, 2021. Writing by Susan Carini, Laura Douglas-Brown and Leigh DeLozier. Photos and video by Kay Hinton, Jack Kearse, Stephen Nowland, Damon Meharg and Corey Broman-Fulks. Design by Laura Dengler.