Student Activism,
An Emory Tradition

Part 1: Undergraduate Students

Polaroid-style photos of students protesting
A black and white photo shows a student in front of a podium on the steps of Candler Library. Other students are gathered around him.

Fifty two years ago this week, members of Emory's Black Student Alliance presented a list of demands on the steps of Candler Library, part of the "Four Days in May" protests that spanned May 25-28, 1969.

Fifty two years ago this week, members of Emory's Black Student Alliance presented a list of demands on the steps of Candler Library, part of the "Four Days in May" protests that spanned May 25-28, 1969.

Fifty two years ago this week, members of Emory's Black Student Alliance presented a list of demands on the steps of Candler Library, part of the "Four Days in May" protests that spanned May 25-28, 1969.

More than a century ago, Eléonore Raoul, a young suffragist and community organizer, challenged convention by enrolling at Emory’s new law school and going on to graduate in 1920.

In 1961, Emory students petitioned the president to admit Black students. In 1963, Verdelle Bellamy and Allie Saxon became the first African American students to graduate from Emory University. In 1969, the Emory Black Student Alliance presented a list of demands on the steps of Candler Library during the Four Days in May at Emory University protest.

In 1992, hundreds of Emory students marched in protest of the administration’s response to LGBT harassment charges. The president appointed a task force to assess the climate for members of the university’s LGBT community.

In fall 2015, Black students issued a set of 13 demands to the administration, calling for improvements in numerous areas impacting primarily Black students and other students, faculty and staff of color. The university partnered with student leaders to address each demand. Today, Emory’s first chief diversity officer continues and leads the ongoing institutionalization of diversity, equity and inclusion.

In 2016, 17 campus organizations and more than 1,500 Emory faculty, students, staff, alumni and other community members submitted a petition to the university administration on behalf of undocumented students. The administration responded the next day with a statement reiterating Emory’s commitment “to continue to welcome and support DACA students as members of our university community.”

These are a few of the countless examples of student activism at Emory, which offers abundant opportunities for students to develop leadership skills and advocate on and off campus for issues important to them.

From equal rights to voting rights, from health care to the environment, the causes that Emory students align themselves with are as diverse as the students themselves.

Here are a few of their stories.

Note: Class years are for the 2020-2021 academic year.

A Polaroid-style photo of Andrew An
  • Major: Bachelor of Science in Nursing
  • Year: Senior (Graduated May 2021)| Age: 21
  • School: Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing

Responding to anti-Asian racism and violence

Thousands of incidents of verbal and physical violence against people of Asian descent in America were reported during the past year, a startling increase over similar time periods. Although this surge is linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, the racism behind it has deep roots in this nation’s history.

With millions of other Americans of all races, Andrew An is responding to the violence with facts and actions. This student activist is dedicated to initiating discussion around LGBTQ+ and minority rights in serving the Asian American community.

A board member of the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Activists at Emory, An helps plan events around Asian American identity, strengthening his growing community and spreading awareness of the issues confronting it. He also worked as a field organizer of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, which fights for civil and human rights of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians in Georgia.

Last fall, An spent hours calling people to make sure they had the resources to vote. This spring, he helped organize the first-ever Emory graduation celebration for students who identify as Asian, Pacific Islander or Desi/American.

“Before I attended Emory, I was not interested in activism and didn’t think much about what it means to be Asian American after always being seen simply as Asian,” An explains. “At Emory, I met people from many different backgrounds and I came to a better appreciation of my own heritage as well as theirs.”

A Polaroid-style photo of Dessy Epie
  • Major: Philosophy and African Studies
  • Year: Sophomore | Age: 20
  • School: Emory College of Arts and Sciences

Combating human rights abuses

During 2020, according to Human Rights Watch, armed groups and government forces in Cameroon were responsible for widespread human rights abuses and mass killings throughout the nation’s Anglophone regions.

That year, an Anglophone Cameroonian immigrant to the U.S. joined other Anglophone Cameroonians and their Francophone compatriots throughout the diaspora to launch a social media campaign, JusticeforCameroon, to elevate international awareness of the crisis, which began in 2016.

“Starting with a team of 10 people, we created an Instagram page, a Twitter account and a Carrd link that featured infographics and other resources from our research,” recalls Dessy Epie.

“Today, we have over 5,000 followers and our posts reach Douala, New York, London and Paris.”

Epie attributes her inspiration in part to how social media has reached worldwide audiences during the pandemic, which also helped motivate her to engage with an issue closer to home. She serves as co-president of Emory’s Black Mental Health Ambassadors, which partners with Counseling and Psychological Services to advocate for Black students and issues regarding their mental health.

A Polaroid-style photo of Nithya Narayanaswamy
  • Major: Biology and Philosophy
  • Year: Sophomore | Age: 19
  • School: Oxford College

Breaking free of the plastic consumption cycle

Our world produces 300 million tons of plastic each year, almost equal to the weight of every human being on earth. Half is single-use plastic products, like bags and bottles — and 91% finds its way to landfills or into the environment, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“Single-use plastic not only exacerbates climate change, pollution and ecological damage, but is also a huge propellant of social inequity by posing adverse health and ecological risks to marginalized communities,” says Nithya Narayanaswamy.

This student activist is co-founder of the Plastic Free Emory Project at Emory’s Atlanta campus and was president of Oxford Climate Reality Project at the university’s Oxford campus. Both are student advocacy groups that elevate awareness of environmental crises and equip the community with the tools to confront, engage with and identify sustainable solutions.

In short, both groups argue, it is time to “break free” from the endless cycle of plastic and shift toward a culture of reuse, mindfulness and intentionality. 

“Students and their voices have enormous power,” Narayanaswamy explains. “As the youth of today, leaders of tomorrow and advocates for a better future, it is so important for us to join platforms for change and share our stories.”

A Polaroid-style photo of Ronald Poole II

  • Major: Comparative Literature and African American Studies (pre-law)
  • Year: Sophomore | Age: 20
  • School: Emory College

Holding the university accountable

Ronald Poole works with the Coalition of Black Organizers and Clubs (CBOC) at Emory. They find much of their inspiration for activism in the examples of student activists who walked the Emory campus generations earlier.

“I’ve always been engaged in political and social activism, but as it relates to my work with the coalition, I am most motivated by the history of activism on this campus,” says Poole. “There is such a rich and diverse history of Black student activism at Emory dating back to 1963 when the first Black student arrived on campus.”

According to the Houston native, CBOC provides a forum that brings together the administration and the Black student body “to force a high degree of accountability [and] advance the general welfare of Emory’s Black constituency.” In July 2020, CBOC issued a letter of nine actionable items to the administration with regard to the ways the university is “itself culpable for the persistence of anti-Blackness.”

How has the administration responded? Very well, compared with other universities, based on Poole’s assessment.

“I have found Emory to be especially engaging and involved,” Poole explains. “CBOC regularly meets with the administration — the president, provost, vice presidents and deans — and has established enduring relationships that support the security and longevity of our coalition’s work.”

A Polaroid-style photo of Grace Shrestha

  • Major: Political Science and Sociology
  • Year: Junior | Age: 21
  • School: Emory College

Easing the isolation of immigrants in detention

Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, more than 100 miles south of Atlanta, has been called one of the busiest hubs in the nation’s immigration system. Immigrants detained at the facility, which houses up to 2,000, rarely receive legal counsel or contact with loved ones because of the isolated location, according to Grace Shrestha.

“We help members of the Emory community advocate for immigrants at Stewart,” says Shrestha, president and co-founder of Behind the Glass: Immigration Reflections, an undergraduate student organization whose volunteers visit detainees at Stewart. She is also co-founder of Emory’s Immigration Coalition, which unites Emory organizations that have ongoing projects related to immigration events and research.

“Emory volunteers visit Stewart and offer hope and solidarity to fellow human beings on the other side of the glass in the visiting booths,” Shrestha says. “We have conversations with immigrants about their families, hobbies and treatment at the facility.” 

Behind the Glass collaborates with two organizations. El Refugio is a local nonprofit that provides immigrants and their families with education, social services and legal references. Volunteer Emory facilitates monthly visitations, letter writing sessions and immigration court observation at Stewart.

“My parents, the first in their families to leave Nepal, motivated me to address the marginalization that immigrants can face,” Shrestha explains.

“I was inspired that they attended college and navigated language barriers, discrimination and legal applications on their own to become citizens of this great nation,” she says. “I plan to become a lawyer and help create a more just and inclusive future for other immigrant families like mine.”            

A Polaroid-style photo of Layla Wofsy

  • Major: Political Science
  • Year: Sophomore | Age: 20
  • School: Emory College

Registering voters for an historic election

Layla Wofsy was too young to vote in the 2016 presidential election. Since then, she has become a force to be reckoned with.

Over the following four years, she advocated for women’s rights, educated herself on women’s issues and gun control, and interned for a 22-year-old state senator in her home of Westport, Connecticut. But it was her gutsy move to register voters in Georgia that she is most proud of.

In the summer of 2020, Wofsy and her roommate decided to create a voting guide for students to register where they were enrolled in college.

“A lot of us switched our registration to Georgia,” says Wofsy. “My goal was to make sure I got everyone I knew to vote here, early or absentee.”

Wofsy and her roommate, who is from Chicago, also published a voter’s guide to walk their peers through the registration process for the first time or to help change their registration to their permanent Atlanta residence. The guide was published on Facebook and Instagram and circulated to Wofsy’s more than 1,000 followers.

“The 2020 election showed how important Georgia is to politics,” Wofsy says. “There’s so much excitement going on here. I don’t know if I would be able to create the voter guide at another school.”

The second part in this two-part series, scheduled for publication soon, will feature the stories of Emory’s graduate and professional student activists.

About this story: Written by Alma Hill and John Baker Brown. Portrait photos courtesy of the students. Historical activism photos from Emory Libraries, Emory Magazine and Emory Photo/Video.

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