In this commencement season, as we contemplate changes to our own lives and an important leadership transition for the University, I appreciate having a moment to express what our time together has meant to me.
I took office as Emory’s 20th president four years ago, when this year’s Class of 2020 was first arriving on our Atlanta and Oxford campuses. I remember helping a number of you move into your dorms. I remember conversations with your families — your proud, anxious parents and siblings. I remember the joy of meeting Emory’s newest international students and being able to share with them that Emory is a place that truly welcomes all.
In those first days as president, I saw both the hope and the ambition that Emory students brought to the table — and not just first-year students, but all students across Emory’s nine colleges and schools. I saw optimism and determination. I saw nervousness about all that you wanted to accomplish during your time at Emory. Maybe I was a little bit nervous, too. We were getting to know one another. I came away from those conversations deeply impressed by the talent that I recognized and by the evident compassion and kindness that comes naturally to so many of you.
The four years that followed have borne out my initial impressions of Emory students and then some. New classes of undergraduate and graduate students have joined our community, and earlier classes have completed their course of study, commencing into the next phase of their professional journeys.
Being the president of Emory has been an adventure and a privilege. Getting to know Emory’s students has been the most consistently rewarding part of the job. You are the heart of our university. Even today, in the midst of the deep uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve watched students stand up and lead the way forward, helping position our institution for what is coming. The present times call for bold ideas and for fortitude, and the Emory student body embodies these traits in full measure.
The pandemic has demanded that we take stock of where Emory stands with regard to every aspect of our mission. Nothing can be taken for granted. Institutional policies, finances, educational delivery and so much else have been forced to adapt almost overnight. Amid the many uncertainties, fears and genuine losses among so many in our community, it might seem Pollyannaish to find rays of hope. But I want to assure you that I do see hope — especially whenever I consider the drive and talent possessed by the next generation of leaders that Emory is helping to shape for lifetimes of engaged service in our world.
We will emerge stronger from this crisis. Though the type and number of questions COVID-19 raises for us as an educational institution is daunting, I am confident that — as with past crises Emory has weathered — this challenge will strengthen our core values and sharpen our sense of what matters most. I hope you can draw hope, as well, from knowing that Emory is one of the country’s leading resources for public health expertise. That includes our researchers’ recent nimble pivot to exploring needed forms of testing, treatment and a vaccine; the brave work of Emory Healthcare staff in caring for the sick; and our close collaborations with neighboring front-line institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I want to recognize the important work that our student governing bodies have undertaken during this period of transition. The Student Government Association (SGA), the Oxford College SGA, the Graduate Student Government Association and College Council all came forward with welcome solutions. These included everything from free MARTA passes and help during move-out to working alongside the administration devising new systems and portals that will help us stay socially connected while physically distancing. You all have helped Emory begin to write a new chapter, one that underscores the innovation and risk-taking that are an enduring part of our legacy.
Like many of you, I feel a keen sense of loss about the fact that we cannot gather on the Quad for commencement. This would have been my opportunity to wish the Class of 2020 — the same class I came in with — every great success and happiness going forward. It would have been my opportunity to congratulate you in person and say goodbye to so many of you whom I had the privilege of knowing. Thank you for your flexibility and resiliency as we work to find alternative modes of celebration.
I fervently wish that the world weren’t asking as much of you as it currently is, but I have no doubt that you will face these challenges with grace and courage. For me, you have been the highlight of an academic and personal journey that I will never forget.
I am convinced that Emory will continue to contribute, thrive and inspire. I am excited for our university’s impact close to home and far away, today and into the future. Thank you for what you have taught me during my tenure as Emory’s 20th president.
Dr. Claire E. Sterk is the current president of Emory University.
Editor’s note: President Sterk declined the Wheel’s request for an end-of-tenure interview and instead wrote this letter.