(Heather Lu/Emory Wheel)

In early March, Nicole Felix-Tovar (23C) received an unexpected call from Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Enku Gelaye, who asked Felix-Tovar if she would be the 2023 student speaker at Emory University’s Commencement ceremony on May 8.

“My literal first response was, ‘I didn’t apply for that,’” Felix-Tovar said.

Felix-Tovar said yes to Gelaye, becoming the second student Commencement speaker in the University’s history. Emory started the student Commencement speaker tradition at the 2022 Commencement ceremony. 

Felix-Tovar graduated Emory College of Arts and Sciences with a double major in human health and anthropology and human biology. She will continue her studies at Laney Graduate School, pursuing a master’s degree in bioethics.

Growing up in St. Cloud, Fla., Felix-Tovar’s family primarily spoke Spanish. Her mother immigrated from Colombia and her father immigrated from Ecuador. Felix-Tovar said her parents have always supported her but never pressured her to make school her priority.

“I did the International Baccalaureate program, and that’s because as a kid, I was just always really interested in school, and that was always just naturally my biggest priority,” Felix-Tovar said.

The International Baccalaureate program gave Felix-Tovar a “global mindset,” allowing her to cultivate a love for medicine and health care. In the summer before her junior year of high school, she attended a medical immersion program in Ahmedabad, India, where she shadowed hospital doctors to observe how they treated patients.

“I really learned a lot about the inequities that are present in other countries and in global health,” Felix-Tovar said. “That really just was a big experience that made me think that I really wanted to make a difference [in] the world through health care and medicine.”

At Emory, Felix-Tovar is a member of Emory Emergency Medical Services, responding to medical emergencies on campus. She also volunteers as a Spanish language interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients through Emory Volunteer Medical Interpretation Services.

After graduating from Laney Graduate School, Felix-Tovar hopes to take a gap year to do funded research on maternal and reproductive health in Colombia before going to medical school.

“The things I’ve learned about global health through my experience in India and in all of the classes that I’ve taken and all the knowledge that I’ve gained here, I’d just really like to apply it back in Colombia because that’s part of my heritage,” she said.

Despite her consistent devotion to healthcare outside of the classroom, Felix-Tovar took the time to figure out her academic interests at Emory.

“I have a … sort of roller coaster type of story with my academics,” Felix-Tovar said. “In high school, I was very much like, ‘Okay, I want to go to medical school one day, so I think the natural course is going to be being a biology major or a neuroscience major … and that’ll get me to where I want to be.’”

However, Felix-Tover’s experience as a student researcher in the Summer Scholars Research Program, which is run through Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute, the summer before her senior year of high school changed her mind. She looked at hospital charts and other data, including looking at data on kidney cancer.

“At the end of that program, I learned so much about myself, and I thought, ‘Medicine and medical research is not always in the lab pipetting,’” Felix-Tovar said. “I realized that I really enjoyed the project that I was working on because I wasn’t in the lab.”

Felix-Tover realized that medicine and healthcare are interdisciplinary. She added that labs and studies in medical humanities are equally valuable.

It was the 1915 Scholars Program, an organization that provides first-generation college students with resources and mentorship, that started Felix-Tovar’s journey to becoming the 2023 student Commencement speaker. Director of the 1915 Scholars Program Michelle Johnson invited Felix-Tovar to give a speech at the University’s 2O36 campaign in Miami in December 2022, which University President Gregory Fenves attended.

In Gelaye’s March phone call with Felix-Tovar, she revealed that Fenves had liked Felix-Tovar’s speech and wanted her to be the student Commencement speaker. Before hanging up, Felix-Tovar already knew she wanted to give a speech on perfectionism.

“I know a lot of students at Emory can be perfectionists or can really hold themselves to perfect standards,” Felix-Tovar said. “It can be a good thing, but it can also be a really damaging thing. So I wanted to surround my speech around that.”

Felix-Tovar added that everyone in the graduating class has “unique” stories and “incredible” things to say.

“I’m just really honored and humbled to have been chosen to do that,” Felix-Tovar said.

There have been ups and downs, and many things Felix-Tovar does on campus were with group efforts.

“I’m hoping to continue in the future just thinking of myself as an individual and a leader but also as someone as part of a team,” Felix-Tovar said. “I couldn’t have gotten here today or to the graduation day without my family, my friends and my support systems because they’ve carried me through all of it.”

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Heather(Zeyi) Lu (24C) is from Xinjiang, China, majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Law & International Studies. She enjoys exercising and baking outside of the Wheel.