William Foege, the renowned epidemiologist credited with creating the global strategy to eradicate smallpox, urged Emory’s Class of 2016 to move forward seeking connections, equity and justice to become their own healing force in the world.
In a keynote address infused with warm, witty anecdotes about his own life experiences, the former Emory public health professor once again embraced an educator’s role at the University’s 171st Commencement ceremonies Monday morning, titling his remarks “Lessons I am Still Trying Desperately to Learn.”
Speaking to the 4,494 graduates in the Class of 2016 — among a joyful crowd of about 15,000 assembled on the Emory Quadrangle — Foege began by admitting “a conflict of interest.”
“I love Emory and I appreciate what Emory has done for me over the years,” acknowledged Foege, praising contributions such as the medical care provided President Jimmy Carter and his family, Emory’s role in making global health a university-wide priority, and more recently, the University’s leadership in the treatment of Ebola virus disease.
He then took the audience 50 years back in time. The year was 1966, and Foege was traveling to Africa with his family when he detoured to the London School of Tropical Medicine to talk to teachers.
After Foege spent 20 minutes visiting with Dr. Robert Cochrane, then the world’s foremost authority on leprosy and former dean of the Vellore Christian Medical College and Hospital in south India, Cochrane stopped him.
“My conscience will not permit me to allow you to go to Africa knowing as little about leprosy as you seem to know,” the dean told him.
Inviting Foege into his home, Cochrane would spend the next three days lecturing and sharing some of his “16,000 leprosy slides,” Foege recalled.
“I tell you, it was a thrill at first,” he said, with a smile. “By the third day I realized the passion to teach far surpasses the passion to learn.”
“And that is why we have Commencement talks,” he added. “The University can’t stop. It tries to the end to teach.”
"A better world for generations yet unborn"
Advising graduates that it had taken “80 years to write this talk,” Foege went on to share a series of life lessons — or “chapters” — that advocated living consciously with kindness, curiosity and a sense of global connection, and facing the future with a mind open to possibilities.
Foege recalled a time, years ago, when he was asked to speak to Emory’s Board of Trustees about what he hoped his son would learn as a student here. The night before, he was reading Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of the King’s Jest" and disagreed with the part of the poem where the speaker declares that “four things greater than all things are: women and horses and power and war.”
“So that night I had the audacity to rewrite Kipling,” Foege said, offering his lines for what he hoped his son and other students would learn: "Four things treasure all else above: purpose and faith and wisdom and love."
In recognition of his humanitarian service and lifetime achievements, Foege was presented with the Emory President’s Medal, one of the two highest honors granted by the University, by Emory President James Wagner.
Praising his “heroic efforts and extraordinary success in leaving a better world for generations yet unborn,” Wagner noted Foege’s ability to diminish the suffering of humanity brought on by disease, through both compassionate service and science.
A class dedicated to community, caring
In his own remarks, President Wagner also praised both the academic accomplishments and the service exemplified by the Class of 2016. Reflecting upon the class’s unique qualities, “the description that comes to mind could be the phrase ‘entrepreneurs of care,’” he said.
From student-driven initiatives such as Emory Campus Kitchens, which delivers extra food from campus dining halls to Atlanta food shelters; to Emory Seeds for Knowledge, which helps educate children in Africa; and Freedom at Emory, which advocates for access to higher education for undocumented students, Wagner described a class dedicated to community and caring.
He also recognized the ability of students to keep “our attention focused on issues of justice, from your first year, when you helped to create the Campus Life Compact, to this past year and the work leading up to and continuing from our Racial Justice Retreat.”
“You have demonstrated something important: that compassion and justice and critical intelligence do not cancel each other out, but actually inform each other,” Wagner said.
Marking his last Commencement ceremony as University president — Wagner has announced plans to retire at the end of August — he also reflected on the privilege of addressing each class for the past 13 years that has contributed to Emory’s “ever-improving community.”
“Collectively, these contributions add to the extraordinary nobility of this community — a community which demonstrates again and again that a university can, and I believe must, have a soul,” Wagner said.
“Emory truly endeavors to be both great — a great university — and a good university,” he said. “It has been my joy to be a part of it. I will graduate today with gratitude for my own education in this place.”
Concluding his remarks, Wagner expressed confidence that graduates will "carry your creativity, excellence and character into the communities that await you."]
"Society needs that combination of intellectual power and wisdom and caring and joy that you have developed and exercised here," he said. "Thank you for what you have been and for what you have taught us."
Celebrating the future
The Class of 2016 represents 49 states and 75 countries, earning a total of 4,585 degrees, according to preliminary figures available on Commencement Day. For Emory’s newest graduates, it was a day steeped in both sentiment and excitement — an exercise in looking at how far they’ve come and also moving forward.
For Lud Habtu, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in religion and ethics, the next step forward will involve attending medical school in Ethiopia. “I want to work with third-world countries in the future,” said Habtu, who seeks to return to her “family roots.”
Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology, Joseph Schultz described plans to complete two years of post-baccalaureate work for the National Institutes of Health. “I’ll be working in a lab in neuro-psych research that focuses on human emotions and addiction,” he said, adding that he was “both relieved and nervous to be stepping out into the real world.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science and economics, Linda Huang spoke with enthusiasm of heading for a job in London, as her parents, who traveled from China, beamed with pride.
For Irem Guney, a bachelor’s degree in business administration has led to a job in finance in Atlanta. For Cheryl Choice, a master’s of public health graduate, the next step will be law school to pursue “advocacy work, helping people secure access to health care and mental health care for juveniles.”
With a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy, the next step for Simeon Bolds will be a PhD in astrophysics. But even as he pins his future to the skies, he looks back on his experience at Emory with gratitude. “It’s provided a series of experiences that have helped shape me into the person I am today,” he said.
It was a day for nostalgia, for celebrating friendship and all that is yet to come.
Though college roommates Julia Highsmith and Elisha Pereira both received Bachelor of Science degrees in nursing, what they found in the larger campus experience was just as powerful as what they found in the classroom.
“Emory has been just amazing,” said Highsmith, who will be working in a hospital in her hometown of Washington, D.C. “There are so many different opportunities, great professors and a beautiful campus. And so many ways to get involved.”
“We worked so hard to get here,” she added, scanning the sea of graduates. “Though our program was hard, this makes it worth all those long, late nights.”
Honorary degree recipients
The ceremony also marked the presentation of university-wide honors for students and faculty for service, leadership, teaching and mentoring.
Among the honorees:
- Nowmee Syeda Shehab 16C, who majored in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, received the Marion Luther Brittain Service Award, the university’s highest student award for service and leadership;
- Nancy Thompson 71C 77PH, professor of behavioral sciences and health education in the Rollins School of Public Health, received the United Methodist Church University Scholar/Teacher Award;
- Eloise Carter 78G 83PhD, professor of biology at Oxford College, earned the Thomas Jefferson Award for significant service to the University through personal activities, influence and leadership.
Emory also conferred three honorary degrees at the Commencement ceremony:
- Raymond Danowski, a fine arts dealer, collected more than 75,000 rare books, posters, periodicals and recordings over several decades, compiling a nearly complete record of all published English-language poetry in the 20th century as well as valuable earlier materials. These materials now reside in Emory's Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Accepting the Doctor of Humane Letters for Danowski was his son, Gus.
- Temple Grandin, a noted researcher in the field of animal science and the humane handling of livestock, is also a leading advocate for the autism community who has shared her own life story through speaking engagements, books and the film "Temple Grandin." A professor at Colorado State University, Grandin received a Doctor of Letters degree.
- Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 in recognition of his groundbreaking research into welfare economics and how economic policies affect nations and communities. A professor at Harvard University, Sen received a Doctor of Letters.