Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) actress Jackie Cruz relayed stories of immigrating from the Dominican Republic and overcoming a severe car accident while speaking to Emory’s 2017 graduating seniors May 4 as the keynote speaker of Class Day.

Cruz shared her story of hardship and success, from growing up as an aspiring performer in the Dominican Republic to finding fame in New York, referring to herself as a “Hollywood Gypsy,” which is also the title of her 2010 EP. Cruz’s life is particularly marked by a near-fatal car crash she was involved in at 16, leaving her in a coma for three days and with countless broken bones and a metal plate in her head.

“My dreams seemed impossible back then. I wanted to kill myself, but my mother said, ‘Jackie you need to make it even more now. You have to inspire other people,’ ” she said in an interview with the Wheel before the event.

Despite the serious content, Cruz kept her speech upbeat and entertaining. Her speech led the audience through her climb in the performance world, from moving to Hollywood with her mom at 15 years old, later to Miami and finally New York.  

She ended her speech by advising audience members to follow their dreams, no matter how long it may take.

Cruz’s story about her transition from the Dominican Republic was similar to the one she told an Emory audience at Culture Shock November 2015, recounting the sacrifices she made to follow her dreams, her accident, and her perseverance.

“It doesn’t matter where you came from. It’s doesn’t matter what you look like. It’s what inside that counts,” Cruz said at Class Day. “If God put a passion in your soul, please don’t put a timeline on your dream because that’s what you’re meant to do.”

Marielle Cottrell (17B) said Cruz’s advice was meaningful to her as she graduates from college.

“That was a good lesson for us — going out into the real world and thinking we know what we’re going to do but in the end, we really don’t,” Cottrell said.

At Class Day, Lynette Dixon (17C), Taryn Connelly (17N) and Lolade Oshin (17B) were presented with Boisfeuillet Jones Medals in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and Goizueta Business School, respectively. The medals are bestowed upon seniors who exhibit dedicated citizenship, leadership and service to their field, Emory and the community, according to the Class Day website.

Maggie Mang (17C) and Aaron Levey (17B) were awarded Knights of Emory Spirit Awards. The spirit awards, sponsored by the Paladin Society, are given to two seniors who have made spirited and selfless contributions to Emory.

Jane Hershman, Director of the BBA Career Management Center, received the Brit Katz Senior Appreciation Award. The Brit Katz Award, a wooden bowl, is given to a staff or administration member who has served beyond their necessary duty and deserves recognition, selected by the current senior class.