A morning that started with rain and the threat of thunderstorms wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits of Emory’s newest graduates and their loved ones. That spirit won out, too, as by the end of the ceremony the sun was shining — an apt metaphor, perhaps, for graduates who persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic and whose time as students was full of transitions.
Music from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Brass Quintet set the tone as family and friends began filling up the Emory Quadrangle by 7 a.m. For the undergraduate, graduate and professional students, May 8 ushered them into an alumni base more than 162,000 strong.
“This is a day that has been years in the making,” said President Gregory L. Fenves. “It started with a dream, a goal, a thought that you could reach this level and earn a degree from one of the finest universities in the world.
“Along the way, there was inspiration, discovery, self-knowledge and moments that shaped you and changed you forever,” Fenves said. “Class of 2023, each one of you has a story. A path that is singular. And only you understood what it took to achieve your goal.”
This theme of personal journeys was present in different ways throughout the ceremony. And not a single speaker shied away from the notion of obstacles and adversity.
Student speaker Nicole Felix-Tovar, who majored in anthropology and human health and biology, shared advice that has seen her through the last four years as she juggled school, work and volunteering with Emory Emergency Medical Services.
When Felix-Tovar shared struggles with her parents, her mom offered the reminder that she’s not perfect. But far from a harsh truth, Felix-Tovar said, “I think those words are one of the truest expressions of love and compassion I’ve ever experienced. And today, I would like to share the meaning, love and compassion of those words with you.”
Emory students are known to be high-achieving and focused on success. These standards can ratchet up expectations, creating a journey full of stress and turning students into their own worst critics.
“Now I’m going to be my mom and say what she says to me to all of you: you are not perfect and you don’t have to be,” Felix-Tovar reminded attendees. “On your journey to accomplish your big goals and dreams, you are allowed to fall down and fail. You’re allowed to make mistakes, change your mind and just be who you are.
“You don’t have to be perfect to be loved, valued and appreciated, and you have inherent worth regardless of your accomplishments. Each of us has our own unique path, and if we were perfect, then we’d all just be replicas of the same person,” Felix-Tovar said.
Activist, writer and justice advocate Anthony Ray Hinton, the keynote speaker, spent 30 years on Death Row in Alabama for crimes he didn’t commit. After his freedom was secured by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Hinton became an EJI community educator and tireless advocate for abolishing the death penalty.
“Tomorrow is a new dawn. You’re going to fall, but I beg you to get up,” said Hinton. “Your plan will not always proceed the way you planned it in your mind. Life will throw you a curve. I know for a fact that at the age of 29 it threw me a curve that I was not expecting. But I truly believe that all of us are born with the instinct to survive whatever comes our way.”
Hinton also reminded attendees to take the good with the bad. “I am one who believes that when it rains, you should walk in the rain,” Hinton said. “For 30 years the rain was not allowed to fall on my body. Not one drop. So I embrace the rain and I want you to realize that the sun will shine again. Enjoy today.”
These words will carry the 5,376 graduates who were awarded 5,525 degrees into their next chapters — which will reach far and wide. This year’s class hails from 54 U.S. states and territories and 67 other nations.
“Graduates of the Emory Class of 2023, enjoy this moment of accomplishment,” Fenves stressed.
“But right now, take one more look around this beautiful Quad. At your university. At your friends. At your family. Appreciate this moment. You’ve reached a milestone in your life.”
Learn more about Emory’s Commencement traditions:
Commencement Speaker Anthony Ray Hinton:
“Have joy where there’s hatred”
Love and forgiveness — principles Hinton learned while he was wrongly incarcerated — were at the crux of his keynote address to Emory graduates. He told them that while they would fail and have bad days, there is always hope. Further, he encouraged the graduates to be a friend to and advocate for others, no matter where their life’s path takes them.
“I challenge you to be great human beings,” Hinton said. “I challenge you to bring what is already inside of you. What is in you is understanding; what is in you is compassion; what is in you is forgiveness; what is in you is love. When I was on death row, I realized all of those things [were] inside of me.”
Hinton is a community educator for the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused in state jails and prisons, according to their website. Founded by attorney Bryan Stevenson, who delivered the Emory Commencement address in 2020, the organization challenges the death penalty and advocates for criminal justice reform.
Earlier this year, the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life, Campus Life and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion sponsored a trip for Emory students, faculty and staff to visit the EJI’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates more than 3,000 people who lost their lives to race-based lynchings in the U.S.
EJI worked on Hinton’s case for more than a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court granted him a new trial. Hinton shared with graduates that life threw him a curveball at the age of 29 when he was wrongfully arrested for double murder. He was in his 60s when he was released from an Alabama prison on April 3, 2015.
Upon seeing the open sky, after spending 30 years behind bars, he said four simple words: “The sun does shine.” Those words also became the title of his 2018 autobiography, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
Since then, he’s spent his time giving back to others, and he encouraged Emory graduates to do the same. In doing so, he apologized to the Class of 2023 that his generation had not left them a world better than the one he entered. However, Hinton believes this generation will be the difference makers.
“I truly believe that you are the ones who are going to right a wrong,” Hinton said. “I truly believe that you have the backbone to stand up and say this is not right. I truly believe that you are the ones who are going to go in the neighborhoods you’re being told not to go in, and teach and learn. I truly believe that all of us is not the worst that we all have done.”
Hinton offered students several nuggets of wisdom for their journeys. Here are a few:
- “I have always believed, no matter where you’re at, no matter how much you have or don’t have, you always have just enough to share with someone else.”
- “Have joy where there’s hatred.”
- “Success is not always about how much money you’re going to make. But, success, to me, is when you make it, you reach down and you pull someone up. And, hopefully, that person will pull someone up.”
- “Forgiveness is not about the other person. Forgiveness is about you.”
- “Every day when you get up, you get up with one thing, if nothing else. You get up with a choice. Every one of you will have a choice whether you want to serve or not serve, whether you want to be a good human being or a bad human being. That choice is yours.”
Before speaking, Hinton was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters. Husband and wife philanthropists and health care advocates also received honorary doctor of humane letters degrees at Emory’s 178th Commencement:
- James “Jim” Cox Kennedy is chairman emeritus of Cox Enterprises and chairman of the James M. Cox Foundation. The foundation supports conservation and the environment, early childhood education and empowering families and individuals for success and health. He is also a cancer survivor, and his experience as a patient at Emory inspired him to support the Woodruff Health Sciences Center with a transformational gift to improve patient care.
- Sarah Kenan Kennedy, one of Atlanta’s most active, compassionate and effective civic leaders, serves on the Executive Advisory Council of the Emory Brain Health Center — a body whose members serve as ambassadors locally and nationally, contributing to the mission of the center through philanthropy, networking and advocacy.
Class of 2023
By the Numbers
Finding their places to shine
The Class of 2023 is well-prepared to brighten the world wherever they go, taking experiences from their time at Emory along with the wisdom imparted by the speakers today.
Zion Moore, a chemistry major from College Park, Georgia, set her sights on Emory as an eight-year-old, when she attended a swim meet on campus. “I loved the school and knew I wanted to come here,” she said. Her next step will be Morehouse School of Medicine, then a residency in pathology. The end goal? “To become a medical examiner, maybe even at home in Clayton County.”
“Emory offers a large set of opportunities,” said biology and political science major Andrew Pak from Philadelphia. “It’s a close-knit community and there are ways to get involved, no matter what your passion is.” One of his passions from high school was debate, and he found a home at Emory as part of the Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation and Dialogue.
In the School of Nursing, Avery Browning found his community and his calling. Growing up in a small Florida town, he said he saw too many people receive inadequate care. He currently works in the transplant unit of Emory University Hospital; following graduation he will work with kidney and liver transplant patients before perhaps exploring a career in trauma nursing.
Though a hospital can be a sad place, Browning — who began his Emory journey on the Oxford College campus — wants his patients to know they’re cared for “and not just another patient. I want to make connections [and for patients to say] my nurse, Avery, treated me so well.”
Daniel Walters also came to Emory via Oxford College and wants to help others as they face life’s challenges. The psychology major will be moving to Madison, Wisconsin, with his fiancé to work at an autism center and plans to later earn a master’s degree in counseling.
Art history major Caitlin Burns is also spreading her wings beyond the Peach State. From Emory College of Arts and Sciences, she’s headed to a summer class at Harvard University, then will take a year off before pursuing her master’s degree in art history.
A gap year is becoming more common as students take time to weigh their options and maybe even rest before the next steps. Neharika Mullick, originally from Singapore, will also take a “gap year” now that she’s completed her degree in economics with additional studies in the pre-health track. She found her place at Emory as a mentor and pre-health advisor, and will continue that focus when she attends dental school.
Some graduates came to Emory with a plan in mind and followed it until they earned their degree. Others changed routes along the way — or are still figuring it out — and realized that was okay.
Goizueta Business School graduate Aviel Rodriguez, who came to Emory as a Questbridge scholar, is one of those students. “I actually started as a computer science major, but a lot of my friends were in business,” he said. “They were like, ‘Hey, you like data, you like tech and you want to get more involved with people, business and technology.’ So I really saw switching to Goizueta as a way to pursue that channel.” The change stuck, and he earned a business degree with a focus in information systems. Although Rodriguez hails from Chicago, he’s staying in Atlanta as part of a finance company’s analytics team.
Another Chicago native, Angelo Marra, also will remain in Atlanta following graduation: he’ll work as a biostatistician at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute after earning his master’s degree from Rollins School of Public Health. “Emory was so welcoming as a university,” he said. “I cannot say enough about the opportunities it affords students, and the mentorship I received at Rollins was beyond my expectations.”
Qingyang Zhu, another Rollins student, received his doctorate in environmental health sciences for research applying machine learning to air pollution modeling and forecasting. Next year, he will work at Emory as a postdoctoral fellow, with his eyes on a job in academia. For the time being, he is glad to remain here. “I applied because of the quality of Emory’s public health, and I have found the atmosphere and resources beyond compare.”
No matter their pursuits, every student needs a support system to realize their dreams. Hundreds of proud colleagues, friends, parents and relatives poured onto the Quad to celebrate their graduates.
“The reasons Matthew [Tanzer] came here proved to be exactly his experience: a combination of academics and sports,” said Nancy Tanzer, whose son came to Emory from Westport, Connecticut, and leaves with a business degree. “He has grown so much at Emory. It’s been a great school academically for him, and he played soccer all four years. As a parent, it’s a joy to watch.”
Julia Falgout, who earned her master of divinity from Candler School of Theology, took part in the Clinical Pastoral Education program and interned at Grady Memorial Hospital’s trauma center. She “proved herself able to give comfort in ways that the medical staff, with their needed focus on patients, could not,” Falgout’s mother Sheila said. She’ll continue to help patients as a chaplain at Emory University Hospital Midtown.
About this story: Writing by Leigh DeLozier, Kelundra Smith, Michelle Ricker and Susan Carini. Photos by Stephen Nowland, Kay Hinton and Ted Pio Roda. Video by Corey Broman-Fulks and Sarah Woods. Design by Angela Vellino and Laura Dengler.