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Pairing relentless curiosity with an openness to opportunities

By April Hunt | Emory Report | May 7, 2021

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Woodruff Scholar Karissa Kang winds up her Emory career with the same burst of energy and brilliance with which she started. Next stop: Yale Law School.

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At first glance, Karissa Kang’s CV reads exactly as expected for a classics and English double major about to graduate with highest honors from Emory College of Arts and Sciences, then tackle Yale Law School in the fall.

This Woodruff Scholar and IDEAS Fellow has had leadership roles with TableTalk Emory, Emory Pride and Dean Michael A. Elliott’s Student Advisory Board. But you can say she got a running start.

In her first week on campus, she began a four-year stint facilitating the Transforming Gender discussion group she hoped to join. In her final month on campus, the Nevada Law Journal published “Anomalous Anatomies,” her analysis of legal remedies for invasive searches of transgender people at TSA checkpoints.

Her first thought after Yale is public interest law, though she hasn’t fully written off the idea of a career as a legal scholar.

And yet, the academic accolades only hint at how Kang’s relentless curiosity, openness to engagement and commitment to puncturing pretense made her an unstoppable force at Emory.

“Karissa has such an exquisite mind but with good humor just under the surface,” says Ed Goode, associate director of the Woodruff Scholars program. “She has this extraordinary ability to open up your world, whether it’s to have fraught conversations about race and identity or to go find the best smash burgers in Atlanta.”

You can see that ability in Kang’s penchant for finding absurdity in the rigid. Self-described as “among the world’s worst Latin students” in high school, she discovered a passion for ancient culture and literature at Emory.

She went on to write her honors thesis by analyzing Aristophanes’ use of disgust in his play, “The Knights.” She also served as a leader in the classics honor society Eta Sigma Phi.

“So many things have occurred to my own surprise, to my own benefit, that have made a difference in my life,” Kang says. “Basically, my life has gone in directions that surprise me, so I’m trying to keep my mind as open as possible.”

For instance, Kang says she initially felt stifled by the focus many undergraduates have on Emory’s excellence in health sciences. Her interests always shifted to the humanities, but she still wanted to get to know and understand all those pre-med majors.

She found the conversations she longed to have in the Interdisciplinary Exploration and Scholarship (IDEAS) Fellowship, focused on synthesizing students’ liberal arts education. Kang dove deeper into the role biology plays in complex social issues in “Are We Our Genes,” the seminar led by Arri Eisen, a professor of pedagogy.

Kang credits the course and her discussions to think more critically about how biology and genetics intersect with the law when considering transgender rights, the area of law she now hopes to specialize in as an advocate.

“A lot of people know stuff, but not a lot of people know their limitations,” says Eisen, who also worked with Kang in the IDEAS Fellowship. “Karissa uses her limitations to see what needs to be done. She takes action, and she’s a natural at bringing you along with her.”

Kang says Emory’s small classes and extracurricular opportunities gave her the space to be vulnerable enough to ask questions and, even more important, defer to others who knew more.

That wasn’t always her attitude. She remembers sensing she was already behind her peers when Elliott, in his role as the Charles Howard Candler Professor of English, asked first-year scholars how many had read “Moby-Dick.”

Most students raised their hands. Kang did not. She promised herself then she would figure out a way to read and study the classic under Elliott. The two have met every other week this spring in a one-credit directed-study course to complete her goal.

“To carefully read with a student of Karissa’s caliber is something that no self-respecting professor would ever pass up,” Elliott says of the time he carved out for them to meet. “It’s been a real pleasure to hear up close how her mind works, the way she identifies what interests her and puzzles her and how she works through it.”

Kang acknowledges her thoughts may not always follow a straight line or be particularly solemn. Emory taught her the value in having a unique intellectual presence and how to appreciate every opportunity to learn something new.

“I possess that urge to defy what others say about me and what can’t be done,” Kang says. “I thank Emory for teaching me how to listen well, to admire my peers and to have fun with the unpredictable. Figuring things out in a chaotic environment can be even more amazing than your expectations.”