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‘The wise heart seeks belonging’: Celebrating Emory’s student identity spaces

“Belonging” was the theme of the day as Emory marked the grand opening of six new student identity spaces in the heart of campus.

Held on Saturday, Oct. 21, during Homecoming weekend, the packed event brought together students, families, alumni, faculty, staff and university leaders to celebrate the new homes of the Emory Black Student Union, Office of LGBT Life, Center for Women, Centro Latinx, Asian Student Center and Emory First, a space for students who are the first in their families to attend college. 

The identity spaces, all part of Campus Life’s Belonging and Community Justice, are located on the third floor of Cox Hall, in the middle of Emory’s campus and beneath the iconic clock tower.

Designed to encourage intersectionality, the beautifully decorated individual spaces open onto shared communal areas where students can gather beneath signs proclaiming “the wise heart seeks belonging” — an expansion of Emory’s motto “Cor prudentis possidebit scientiam,” or “the wise heart seeks knowledge.” 

At the grand opening, attendees filled that central space, overflowing into corridors as Emory leaders offered remarks about the importance and impact of the new spaces before lining up to cut the ribbon marking the official opening. 

President Gregory L. Fenves

Emory President Gregory L. Fenves began with a quote from scholar and author Brené Brown: “True belonging doesn’t require that we change who we are. It requires that we be who we are.” 

“That's one of the driving purposes of this space — that we want every student at Emory to feel that this is a place where they can be themselves, a place to feel accepted, respected and at home,” he said. 

Fenves has been a champion of the new spaces since he visited the university in summer 2020, shortly before taking the helm as Emory’s president. Touring some of the identity spaces in their original locations on that visit, during the height of the COVID pandemic and the national racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, he was dismayed to see peeling paint, old carpets and other signs of disrepair. “We resolved that we were going to do better, that we must do better, that it was essential for Emory to serve our purpose and to serve our students to do better,” he said.

Dean of Campus Life Enku Gelaye

Enku Gelaye, senior vice president and dean of Campus Life, noted the symbolism of bringing each identity space together in Cox Hall. 

“For more than five decades, Cox Hall has been at the center of cultural action on this campus. Located centrally along a bridge, it connects colleges and fields of study to one another. This is the physical core of campus,” she said. “Now, with the inclusion of Belonging and Community Justice in this building, Cox Hall can be the heart of campus as well.” 

Dean of Students Kristina Odejimi

To Kristina Odejemi, who arrived this summer to serve as Emory’s new dean of students and associate vice president for belonging, engagement and community, the identity spaces are part and parcel of the university’s educational mission.

“At Emory, we want students to be able to take full advantage of the extraordinary educational opportunities. To do so they must feel welcome and that they belong,” she said. 

“The new identity spaces provide room for all students to learn about different cultures and a place for students to connect across their identities, expanding their personal understanding of themselves, the world around them, and making deep connections with those with shared experiences.”

‘Transformational spaces’

The new identity spaces reflect the collaboration of a diverse range of students, building on the legacy of generations of student advocacy. 

Student ambassador Braden White

Braden White — a senior in Emory College majoring in philosophy and minoring in women’s, gender and sexuality studies — serves as a student ambassador with the Center for Women and discussed how her involvement in Belonging and Community Justice has shaped her experience at Emory.

“I’m so grateful for the friends that I’ve made and the community that I’m a part of building,” she said. While even the old spaces “always felt like home … this space that we stand in today feels so different and so wonderful.”

“Every day we feel the intentionality and love that built them,” White explained. “There is no longer a sense of being tucked away or hidden. We’re in the middle of campus, we know we matter and we know we belong.” 

Belonging and Community Justice, she noted, is more than just a place: “I hope it will be for you everything that it has been for me. If you’re ever having trouble finding your way, I hope you’re able to come back to this anchor.”

Oxford College and Emory College alum Munir Meghjani

Alumni speaker Munir Meghjani, who concluded his term as president of the Emory Alumni Board during Homecoming weekend, reflected on his experiences at the university more than a decade ago. As a young person, he said he often felt that he needed to downplay his identities — as South Asian, Muslim, low income and first generation — in order to assimilate.

“The reality is that I wasn't confident to really be my whole self, to wear my own cultural clothes,” said Meghjani, who graduated from Oxford College in 2008 and Emory College in 2010. “I was so willing to be an American that I was willing to give up my own culture and heritage. It was thanks to my community at Emory that that started to change.”

While he found cultural connections on campus, “I wish that we had these very programs and resources that exist today, knowing how transformational spaces can be, especially those that allow you to be you,” he continued. “Spaces that are built just for you. Because there's a big difference between ‘you are welcome here,’ and ‘we built this for you, with you, and you belong here.’” 

With the crowd counting down, the speakers then joined other campus leaders to cut the ceremonial ribbon, officially welcoming everyone to Emory’s new hub — and home — for Belonging and Community Justice.

All photos by Kay Hinton of Emory Photo/Video.

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