An audience of eager Emory University students, staff and guests filled the Emory Student Center’s multipurpose room for the 42nd annual Carter Town Hall on Nov. 6. This year’s town hall featured actress and activist Yara Shahidi, who united the Emory community for an inspiring evening. She discussed topics ranging from personal identity to her undergraduate experience at Harvard University (Mass.).
Shahidi, known for her breakout role on ABC’s “black-ish” and lead of its spin-off series “grown-ish,” has captivated audiences worldwide with her on-screen performances. In addition to her acting career, Shahidi graduated from Harvard in 2022. The 23-year-old has already established a humanitarian legacy, using her platform to elevate social causes and advocate for inclusivity and equity. Her accolades, including TIME magazine’s “30 Most Influential Teens” and Forbes’ “30 Under 30” speak volumes about her dedication to change.
The event was open to all Emory students, which is a change from past years. This fostered a more inclusive and diverse gathering. The Carter Town Hall tradition began in 1982, when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter assumed the role of a university distinguished professor. Since then, it has become a hallmark of the Emory experience.
Carter gave the keynote speech at all town halls until 2020, when his grandson, former Georgia state senator and 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, gave the keynote speech. Since then, former Atlanta Mayor and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young spoke at the 2021 town hall and U.S. women’s national soccer team star Megan Rapinoe spoke at the 2022 town hall.
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Ravi Bellamkonda opened the event with a warm welcome. He highlighted Shahidi’s suitability as this year’s Carter Town Hall speaker, aligning her social impact and commitment to service with Carter’s legacy. As he concluded his address, Bellamkonda left the audience with a resonant quote from Carter, a message that was displayed on the stage’s backdrop and printed on stickers given to attendees: “I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”
Following Bellamkonda, Jason Carter, who chairs the Board of Trustees for The Carter Center, reminded the audience that the event is not only a tribute to Carter but is also about making his vision relevant to the current generation of students.
Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Enku Gelaye welcomed Shahidi to the stage. The crowd greeted Shahidi with a standing ovation. Vice Provost of Libraries and Museums Valeda F. Dent facilitated the discussion with Shahidi.
Dent began the conversation by introducing the idea of flourishing, a core value at Emory. Shahidi connected this concept to “thriving” as opposed to merely “surviving,” emphasizing the need to value both tangible and intangible aspects of life and personal growth.
As Dent transitioned to Shahidi’s work with the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery initiative, the speaker refused personal credit and instead commended the passionate team leading the initiative, including Vincent Brown, who is the Charles Warren professor of American history and a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard. Shahidi stressed the importance of recognizing and sharing these historical injustices with the community.
“Especially coming in as a Black student, there’s this unspoken history that we walk into that other students don’t walk in with, in regards to how our communities and our peoples have related to this campus prior to us stepping on,” Shahidi said.
Dent then asked Shahidi about time management challenges and finding balance, a topic that resonates with many college students. Shahidi addressed the common student struggle of navigating the demands of short-term goals while simultaneously contemplating their long-term aspirations. She shared her personal approach to this issue: reflecting on the future, zoning in on obligations to determine her priorities and relying on a support network.
“It was really important when she said not everything has equal stakes in your life,” attendee Anika Kapur (25C) said. “That was a very powerful message because … you’ve got so many responsibilities as a college student or a post-grad.”
Drawing from her personal experiences, Shahidi encouraged the audience to prioritize self-care and recognize their limits. She introduced one of her favorite phrases — “what we’re not gonna do” — as a lighthearted yet firm way to assert personal boundaries.
Dent then explored the concept of a “beloved community.” As Shahidi referenced her Black and Iranian identity, she recounted her curiosity about the world, her history and the histories of other diverse communities around her. This curiosity sparked Shahidi’s interest in humanitarian issues, helping her within her work of social engagement.
“Her being a Black female student, that resonates a lot with me, so that was my favorite thing, to see someone like me speaking about her own experiences and her success in the world,” attendee Aaliyah Williams (27C) said.
Shahidi reminded the audience to look beyond oneself and give back to the world, paving a pathway for those after us.
“One hopeful thing I hold on to, even in the darkest of times, is that the fact that all of us are present is nothing short of a miracle,” Shahidi said. “We’re all the manifestation of centuries of work of people that didn’t even know they were working for us to be here.”
The discussion then turned to Shahidi’s college experience. She highlighted the unique opportunities college provides for introspection and exploration. She touched on the power of mentorship and general education requirements’ role in fostering a well-rounded education. Shahidi said she resonates with first-generation college students feeling pressure for learning to be immediately applicable. Nonetheless, she took unique classes at Harvard, encouraging students to make the most of their time at Emory.
Students in attendance were touched by Shahidi’s wisdom.
“I’ve been a fan of Yara’s work for a long time as well as her advocacy, and I thought that the eloquence and wisdom that she brought, especially as somebody who is a peer in terms of age to all the students here, was really inspiring,” Royce Mann (25C). “It was great to have a speaker who we could relate to on that level.”
Following the discussion, the event transitioned into a brief Q&A session with student leaders from the Student Government Association, Oxford Student Government Association, Graduate Student Government Associations and College Council. During this segment, Shahidi shed light on the central role of mentors in her life. She also shared her personal journey and challenges as a Black woman within the art space, explaining the prevalence of double standards for Black women in the industry and underscoring the willpower and vulnerability her career requires.
Shahidi also gave a piece of advice she would offer to her younger self: Cease the pursuit of external validation. She highlighted the need to strike a balance by not overly internalizing praise and criticism.
“When people are deeply optimistic in the face of knowing just how flawed our world is, that always gives me a lot of hope,” Shahidi said.
Ruchi Tipnis (she/her, 27C) is from Mumbai, India and intends to major in business and economics. Outside of the wheel, Tipnis is a member of the Economic Student Society’s executive board. In her free time, she enjoys creating art, reading, and capturing memories on her film camera.