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5 life lessons from Emory Commencement speakers

As Emory prepares to welcome entertainment visionary Tyler Perry as the university’s 2022 Commencement speaker, we take a look back at the wisdom offered by speakers over the past five years.

They represent diverse areas of expertise: public health scientist, human rights lawyer, former U.S. ambassador and civil rights leader, internet entrepreneur and former U.S. poet laureate.

Yet a common theme runs through their messages to Emory students: We all, in some way, have both the ability and the responsibility to make a difference in the world.

Anthony Fauci on a screen with Emory graduates in chairs

2021: Anthony Fauci

It is a hurting and challenged world that we live in, and the normal to which we will return may not be the same as the normal we all recall before January 2020. Perhaps, however, it can be an even better normal, and you can play an important role in shaping this new normal.

Instead of one central Commencement ceremony for Emory’s Class of 2021, there were 14, representing the university’s nine schools and multiple degree programs, held over three days at the Georgia World Congress Center to allow for appropriate physical distancing.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, addressed the Emory College ceremony live via Zoom, and his address was streamed for the full Emory community. After receiving an honorary degree from Emory in 2003, he was presented the Emory University President’s Medal in 2021.

Fauci spoke of the health disparities and racial inequalities highlighted by the pandemic — “Righting this wrong will take a decades-long commitment. I strongly urge you to be part of that commitment” — and urged graduates to be devoted to public service and accept their roles as future leaders of society, whether in their careers or in other aspects of their day-to-day lives.

His final reminders were for graduates to remain hopeful and to find joy in life: “Allow yourselves to cultivate joy as much as you do your professional accomplishments. Find your source of joy and happiness and fully embrace it.”

A portrait of Bryan Stevenson

2020: Bryan Stevenson

To change the world, we are going to have to do uncomfortable and inconvenient things.

Social justice advocate and human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, gave the keynote address at Emory’s 2020 Commencement, which was held virtually in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stevenson, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree, led the creation of two nationally acclaimed cultural sites that opened in Montgomery in 2018: The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. His memoir, “Just Mercy,” was made into a major motion picture.

In a keynote address that drew from 35 years spent challenging wrongful prosecutions and overturning death-penalty convictions, Stevenson acknowledged that “this is a difficult and challenging time … where unjust inequality has manifested itself in a really tragic way. There are problems that we see that cross barriers and boundaries, but it’s clear that the poor, the disfavored, the marginalized have been particularly impacted by this pandemic.”

He urged America to reject the politics of fear and anger that have shaped our national narrative. “There’s this narrative of racial difference, this myth of racial hierarchy that has shaped our world experience,” he said. “And I think we have to change that narrative, and that means we’re going to have to talk about things we haven’t talked about before.”

To meet the “critical task of overcoming injustice, unfairness and inequality,” Stevenson urged graduates to embrace hope.

“Hopelessness is the enemy of justice,” he said. “Hope is a powerful force. It will sometimes make you stand up even when people say sit down. It will make you speak even when people say ‘be quiet.’”

Andrew Young on stage at Commencement

2019: Andrew Young

The challenges that life has put in your path, those are not stumbling blocks — those are stepping stones that will take you into a future that neither you nor I can imagine.

Former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, a U.S. civil rights icon, humanitarian and global diplomat, gave Emory’s 2019 Commencement address and received the President’s Medal, after receiving an honorary degree from Emory in 1991.

Drawing from his own experiences in activism, politics and international diplomacy, Young told graduates that he understood the emotions that can emerge at graduation, as students step out to confront the challenges of an increasingly complex world. Reflecting upon his early work in the U.S. civil rights movement alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Young acknowledged not knowing where their efforts would lead.

“We did kind of change the world in some ways,” he said. “But I’ll let you in on a little secret — we really didn’t know what we were doing. We had no idea how this country could change.”

In the end, their activism would lead to landmark legislation — passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Young would continue to shape history, twice elected mayor of Atlanta, serving Georgia in the U.S. Congress, and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Young urged Emory graduates to remain open to the experiences that await them and ready to keep learning from life’s classroom.

“With the kind of love and investment that has been made in you, the kind of future that we dream for ourselves and for you, this is a great day and you are a great people created for just such a day as this,” Young said. “God has blessed you. Pass those blessings throughout his creation.”

Michael Dubin on stage at Commencement

2018: Michael Dubin

I believe if you want to live a life of purpose and happiness, you have to become familiar with the essence of choices.

In a Commencement address woven with humor and advice gleaned from his own meteoric career, Emory alumnus and trailblazing entrepreneur Michael Dubin, co-founder and CEO of Dollar Shave Club, urged Emory graduates to think of time as an investment, cautioning that the little choices they make about how to spend it may prove to be even more important than the big ones.

Choices come in all shapes and sizes, he said, noting that not all of our most important choices present themselves as the obviously “important” ones. In the end, decisions such as where, with whom and how you choose to invest your time are where you will see your life grow.

Dubin, a 2001 graduate of Emory College, was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Under his creativity and leadership, Dollar Shave Club revolutionized the razor industry, selling directly to consumers with innovative ads and viral YouTube videos. In a move that made headlines on Wall Street, in 2016 Dollar Shave Club was sold to consumer goods conglomerate Unilever for $1 billion — at that time, one of the largest deals in e-commerce history.

As they move forward along their respective pathways, Dubin urged graduates to continue inviting new ideas into their lives. “New things, new people, and most importantly, new perspectives,” he said. “If there was ever a time in our history that we needed access to perspectives different than our own, it is now.”

Natasha Trethewey on stage at Commencement

2017: Natasha Trethewey

When you leave here today, continue the work to ennoble your soul. Find a way to live in the world that by your action serves the greater good.

In the face of challenging times, former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey urged Emory’s Class of 2017 to keep honing their critical thinking skills, embracing the pursuit of knowledge, justice, empathy and truth as they shape both themselves and the world around them.

Trethewey, then Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing and director of Emory’s Creative Writing Program, gave the Commencement address and received an honorary doctor of letters as she concluded 15 years as an Emory professor. She joined Northwestern University’s English department that fall.

In a keynote address woven in lyrically sculpted prose, the acclaimed poet, who served two terms as U.S. poet laureate, reminded students to move forward as critical thinkers.

“Don’t be ignorant of history, fooled by the false narratives of those who lie about the past for their own gains,” she said. “Don’t squander the years you spent here by becoming complacent as a reader and not challenging your own assumptions, as well as the unsubstantiated claims of others.

“Ask questions,” she said. “Remember the primacy of evidence.”

She closed her address by quoting a line from a poem by her late father, poet Eric Trethewey: "Why are we not better than we are?"

"By asking that question of our individual and collective selves … we can rise above the empty rhetoric of self-interest and self-aggrandizement that characterizes our troubled national moment — and make of ourselves, the way we lead our lives, poetry."


Emory University Commencement Ceremony

Monday, May 9, 8:30 a.m.
In person | Emory Quadrangle

The Emory University Commencement Ceremony on the Quadrangle is a ticketed event for all 2022 graduates and their guests. Graduating students received information about registration and guests' tickets via email. The event will also be livestreamed from the Commencement website for the entire community to view.

You can also visit the Commencement website for the full Commencement weekend schedule, information about planning your visit, answers to frequently asked questions, and more.

View the Commencement website

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