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Building connection in the face of global disruption provides theme for Emory College class orator
profile image of Jewel Okoronkwo

Jewel Okoronkwo, a neuroscience and behavioral biology major, is well-known around Emory. When students returned to campus after the COVID-19 pandemic, Okoronkwo could be found fostering community and conversation in Asbury Circle.

— Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video

Jewel Okoronkwo can pinpoint the exact date she made her first college friend: April 2, 2019.

It was Admitted Students’ Day for the Emory College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2023. Between then and the first day of class on Aug. 28 of that year, she built an ever-expanding network that would prove to be an anchor when late-night campus walks became online study sessions, and everything from classes to movie nights went virtual.

Existing friendships deepened during that global disruption. And when everyone cautiously came back onto campus her junior year, Okoronkwo found even more people wanting to connect. She will remind fellow graduates of how valuable that mindset is as the class orator during the Emory College diploma ceremony on May 8.

“It can be hard sometimes to be vulnerable, to truly let out your feelings,” says Okoronkwo, a neuroscience and behavioral biology from Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, near the Tennessee border.

“COVID made it more urgent to see that is how you grow close to people,” she adds. “We couldn’t have our college experience as a physical place, so it became about friendship.”

A selection committee of students, faculty and administrators chose Okoronkwo to speak at the Emory College diploma ceremony after a highly selective process that reviews student leadership, speaking ability and contributions to Emory.

The committee selected four finalists from that pool to audition by delivering their speeches and answering interview questions. Okoronkwo’s emphasis on friendship set her speech apart, says Robert Torre, the College’s assistant director for academic affairs and leader of the selection committee.

‘A perfect representative’

Growing up Nigerian-American in a small town, Okoronkwo was used to being different. She had been set on leaving the state to find the new experiences she wanted during college.

On closer inspection, she decided Emory was a hidden gem. The emphasis on liberal arts satisfied her need to explore, while the access to research opportunities supported her plan to become a doctor — all while giving her a chance to live in Atlanta.

Still, she worried about fitting in, right up until meeting Israel Negrete during the admitted-student visit. The pair have remained best friends since, serving as mentors with STEM Pathways even after Negrete transferred to Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

Okoronkwo met her other best friend, Adriana English, at the same event, when she spotted another Black woman in the crowd and made a point to introduce herself.

“You’ve heard the joke about how an extrovert will adopt an introvert? That’s exactly what happened,” says English, a double major in human health and environmental sciences who will complete her master’s at Rollins School of Public Health after graduation.

“Jewel’s personality is kind of like the sun. Her spirit is so warm and energetic, yet calming,” English adds. “I feel blessed to have known her. She’s made friends with so many people across different majors and backgrounds, I think she has a pretty diverse view of the Emory experience. She is such a perfect representative to speak for the good at Emory.”

Okoronkwo used her gift for making others feel comfortable socially in activities with Volunteer Emory. She brought that same passion for building community into her academic endeavors, serving as a mentor, tutor and coach with STEM Pathways, Black Mental Health Ambassadors, Emory Pathways to Academic Success for Students (EPASS) and the Phi Delta Epsilon international medical fraternity.

That Okoronkwo stepped up to maintain those connections when classes went remote — when she also became a nursing assistant working at a care home during the pandemic’s early days — reveals the selflessness behind her success, says Merideth Ray, Emory College’s director of Academic Success Programs.

“When you first meet Jewel and see the warmth of her smile, you can tell she’s eager to engage and create community,” Ray says. “She is good at making people feel like they are part of something.”

‘A sincere friend’

When in-person classes resumed her junior year, Okoronkwo noticed many students appeared to still have that need to belong. She understood that need and the importance of making relationships a priority.

Her response? When she wasn’t developing her lab techniques at Emory’s Whitehead Biomedical Research Building, she hung out at Asbury Circle in the hopes of having as many conversations as possible.

“In my experience, everyone acted like they were a freshman again. Everybody talked to everybody,” Okoronkwo says. “People were masked, so you could say you were not sure if you knew someone and everyone was willing to stop and talk.”

She continued that pursuit of connection through the summer, becoming closer with Solanch Dupeyron when the two joined other neuroscience and behavioral biology students for study in Paris, and as Okoronkwo began a research project in fall 2022 at the Marcus Autism Center, examining variables that help preschools be more inclusive.

Okoronkwo’s senior year has been marked by a return to those familiar wee-hour talks — this time about plans for gap-year research before medical school — and novel experiences, such as successfully trying out for TedXEmory.

Dupeyron encouraged Okoronkwo to become orator after watching her friend’s main conference talk, “Has Representation Gone Too Far,” and making the crowd laugh through a serious discussion about race and representation in film and TV.

“Jewel is very easy to talk to because she’s very honest and open,” Dupeyron says. “When she gives words of encouragement, you know she means it. To have the last words our graduating class hear be hers will be special because she is a sincere friend.”

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