Main content
As Emory College class orator, Konan directs the spotlight to everyday supporters
Heather-Destiny Konan

Heather-Destiny Konan, the 2022 class orator, found success through community while at Emory. She wants fellow graduates to consider their role doing the same as they head into the world.

— Emory Photo Video

During her junior year of high school, Heather-Destiny Konan was learning about biological resiliency when her mother gave her a lesson in mental toughness.

A tip o’ the cap to Emory staff

Despite a layoff that led to the loss of their Maryland home, Amy-Jose Konan kept up with the college application process for her daughter. Konan arrived at Emory , having  matched for a full ride through the QuestBridge Scholars program for exceptional low-income students, fascinated by neuroplasticity and psychological resiliency.

Then came the pandemic. Konan was among the few students who remained on campus. And, as she will share with fellow Class of 2022 Emory College of Arts and Sciences graduates during Commencement on May 9, Konan grew to appreciate anew the quiet background players critical for any success.

“There would be hordes of us streaming into the dining hall from a 6 p.m. chem exam, and we would not be ok,” Konan says. “And greeting us are all these people who are literally here for us, feeding us and wanting to talk about how we are doing.”

“When the pandemic happened, the screen fell and made it clear how much those people matter and why our community works,” adds Konan, a neuroscience and behavioral biology major. “We are all part of a bigger community than we realized.”

A slice of that community — made up of students, faculty and administrators — chose Konan to be class orator and the sole speaker at the Emory College diploma ceremony following a highly selective process.

All applicants submitted a resume and written speech for consideration. Five finalists auditioned by delivering their speech and answering interview questions. Konan’s optimistic message stirred the committee most, says Jason Ciejka, associate dean in the Emory College Office for Undergraduate Education.

“Heather-Destiny is an exemplary student who has made a difference across campus,” Ciejka says. “She has a natural gift for public speaking and a powerful personal narrative to share with the senior class.”

As the daughter of immigrants from Ivory Coast, Konan carried two expectations with her to campus: find a path toward medical school and commit to being respectful to everyone she encountered.

Like many other arriving first-year students, Konan learned the names of workers in the DUC-ling (the interim dining facility her first year) and her residence hall. One was “Miss Barbara” Terrell, a dining hall staffer now stationed at Woodruff Physical Education Center who always made a point to ask about Konan’s mother while keeping the food flowing.

Stanley McGill with Emory’s Buildings and Residential Services department was another, often the first face she saw after pulling all-nighters, greeting him just before dawn as he set up different buildings for the day.

Those bonds deepened when Konan worked at the student center as a junior, one of the few returning students following a sophomore year disrupted by the global shutdown.

“It’s incredible how many people were constantly working,” she says. “It really drove it home that Emory does not exist without these people. I’m so grateful to know them, because they really do care about us.”

Exploring a range of ethical questions

Among the topics of discussion was her coursework, which extended beyond pre-med to include a deep enough dive into history classes for it to become her minor. As she became a leader in the Emory Pipeline Collaborative, helping prepare high schoolers from disadvantaged backgrounds for health care careers, Konan also worked on independent projects examining the history of racism in health care.

Last summer, she interned with Yale University’s SEICHE Center for Health and Justice, working on archival research that looks at the history of health care litigation and policy in correctional settings. Konan turned that research into a paper that she presented at the American Association for the History of Medicine conference in April.

“It is an absolute gift to have a student like Heather-Destiny, who understands it would be unethical to practice medicine that is not historically informed,” says Kylie Smith, an Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow for Nursing and Humanities who served as Konan’s mentor after having her in class. “She really believes in change and possibility.”

Konan is open to different options after she graduates. She has applied either to study the effect of mass incarceration among Indigenous populations in Australia or to undertake a postbaccalaureate NIH research position, both as work to complete before medical school.

First, however, she hopes her Commencement speech will connect with the many students she knows have succeeded, despite the past rocky few years, and the broader community whose support made it happen.

“Emory has so many people doing amazing things that you never hear about, especially the workers who are rooting for them every step of the way,” Konan says.

“I would hope we realize that, whatever we do next, we can always be that person cheering others on,” she adds. “Living like that makes the whole system work.”

Recent News