Friends, families and peers celebrated members of Emory University’s Class of 2023 on May 8 at the University’s 178th Commencement ceremony on the Quadrangle. The ceremony included graduates from the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Emory School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Candler School of Theology, Emory School of Law, Goizueta Business School, Laney Graduate School and the Rollins School of Public Health.

University President Gregory L. Fenves began the Commencement festivities by encouraging the graduates to reflect on the experiences, dreams and support systems that have contributed to their achievements.

“Today, that dream you had only a few years ago is now a reality, and you made that happen,” Fenves said. “You worked hard, you sacrificed, you challenged yourself and you realized your potential. And, so many of the people who encouraged you, who gave you strength, who leaned on you for advice, who believed in you no matter what are right here now.”

Fenves reminded the Class of 2023 to stay true to their unique journeys as they navigate their careers, confident that the graduates’ Emory education has prepared them to make their mark in their chosen field.

“Each one of you has a story, a path that is singular, and only you understood what it took to achieve your goal,” Fenves said. “I want you always to remember that you are capable of greatness, that your years at Emory have prepared you for a lifetime of learning, success, creativity, accomplishment and making an impact on a changing world.”

Commencement student speaker Nicole Felix-Tovar (23C) discussed the concept of a world in flux during her speech.

“You have all poured so much of yourself into making it here today, and I know that it has been anything but a smooth ride,” Felix-Tovar said. “Rather than experiencing our journeys alongside one another, the pandemic forced us to be apart for more than a year. We faced countless changes and transitions.”

Felix-Tovar stated that while the pandemic hindered a portion of graduates’ college experience, the strain of online classes and social separation pushed students to focus on their mental health. She added that, in her most stressful moments, her mother’s advice helped her adjust her goals of perfection for ones more attainable, a message she shared with her classmates.

“On your journey to accomplish your big goals and dreams, you’re allowed to fall down,” Felix-Tovar said. “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..”

Members of the Emory community also received awards that recognized their service to the University during Commencement. Associate Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics Ira Schwartz was nominated by the deans to receive the Exemplary Teacher of the Year Award, which “celebrates the accomplishments and life changing impact of a member of the Emory University faculty,” according to Fenves. Emory University Swimming and Diving Head Coach Jon Howell, who has brought 15 NCAA national championships to Emory since 2005, received the Thomas Jefferson Award for his “significant service to the university through personal activities, influence and leadership,” according to the Commencement ceremony program.

Sandra Bourdon (23C) and Elsa Mekonnen (22N) received the Marion Luther Brittain Awards, which are distributed to one undergraduate and one graduate student each year for outstanding contributions to the University.

James Cox Kennedy, the chairman emeritus of Cox Enterprises and chairman of the James M. Cox Foundation, and Sarah Kenan Kennedy, who serves on the Executive Advisory Council of the Emory Brain Health Center, received honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees for their philanthropy and advocacy in the healthcare industry. 

Anthony Ray Hinton delivers the keynote speech before the Class of 2023 at Emory University’s 178th Commencement ceremony. (Madi Olivier/Managing Editor)

Activist and author Anthony Ray Hinton, the Commencement speaker, received the same honor before delivering the keynote speech.

Hinton, who spent 28 years on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit, told the Class of 2023 that he had to pull his greatest qualities from within him to overcome the “curve” life threw at him when he entered prison and encouraged the graduates to do the same when they inevitably face obstacles.

“I challenge you to bring what is already inside of you,” Hinton said. “And what is in you is compassion. What is in you is understanding. What is in you is forgiveness. What is in you is love.”

Stressing that the choice to forgive those who wronged him gave him personal peace, Hinton told the graduates that people “get up with a choice” about who they will be every day. According to Hinton, part of that choice should include building relationships with those who matter, as having — and being — part of a strong support system alleviates even the heaviest burdens.

“I challenge you to take someone and become a friend to them,” Hinton said. “You don’t have to know them. I challenge you to realize that no matter where you’re at, no matter where you are, you should be able to call on someone and lean on them.”

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Claire Fenton (she/her) (24C) is a Pittsburgh native majoring in quantitive sciences and linguistics. Outside of the Wheel, she is the treasurer of Emory Data Science Club and Girls Who Code. When she’s not training for half marathons, you can find her watching the Penguins dominate the Philadelphia Flyers and reading Agatha Christie novels.