Volume 78
Number 2

Miracle of an Ordinary Life

Commencement 2002

Cuba: Paradox Island

Without Sanctuary

Alumni Authors

Elizabeth Dewberry ’89PhD

Previous issue: Spring 2002




Additional Commencement stories:

The Brittain Award

The McMullan Award

Luce Scholarship


















































THE LONG, WHITE STYROFOAM COOLER took up three entire Commencement seats. Battered and stained, it was tied shut with knotted twine. A post-graduation family picnic? Live lobsters? Celebratory champagne?

The cooler turned out to be filled with authentic Hawaiian leis. Fresh and fragrant, the exquisite, hand-woven floral necklaces had been packed lovingly in ice and flown across the ocean to be worn in honor of Jacob Waxman, a senior political science major who received his Emory degree May 13, along with more than 3,300 other graduates.

Waxman, who grew up surfing in Hawaii, will spend this summer in South Africa, then take a post with the outreach organization Teach for America. His mom, Madelyn D’Enbeau, beamed proudly as he accepted his diploma. She makes sure the leis are brought to all important family occasions.

“In Hawaii, leis are a traditional part of any big event,” said Jacob’s sister, Ilana. His aunt, Lisa Waxman, agreed, “When I graduated from Wesleyan, we had the same thing.”

The leis were just one example of the festive customs that found their way into this American university rite of passage. Emory families from the U.S. and around the world gathered on the Quadrangle in the cool, breezy morning for Emory’s one hundred fifty-seventh Commencement, a hopeful close to an academic year marked by the international tragedy of September 11. Women in traditional Indian saris craned their necks to see their sons, sitting beside nervous dads in bowties awaiting their daughters’ shining moment with teddy bears and roses. The dozens of languages swirling on the Quad brought home the reality of a rapidly shrinking world.

The shadow of the year’s events could not be ignored, but neither could it dim the brightness of the day for graduates and their families. Alfred Uhry, Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright, gave the keynote speech. A writer who has grappled with themes of conflict and racial tension in his work, Uhry gave an address that mixed sobriety with off-the-cuff humor and lightheartedness.

“This is a very serious time for you people to come of age,” Uhry said. “The bedrock under us seems to have a crack in it, doesn’t it? We believe nothing is sure for us, nowhere is really safe. And I think the only thing we can do about that is look inside ourselves, all of us, and find a way to have the courage that we’re going to need for whatever it is that’s going to happen.”

Uhry, an Atlantan who graduated from Druid Hills High School and wrote Driving Miss Daisy, the play that became an Academy- Award-winning film, was one of five honorary degree recipients who addressed students at the 2002 Commencement ceremony. He imparted simple advice that he wished he had taken as a young man: “Actions have consequences,” he said. “Stick with the truth. That way you won’t have to worry about remembering what you said. . . . Even when it’s hard to try, you’ve got to keep trying. Take risks. And have fun along the way. It doesn’t cost anything and you might as well do it, right?”

Benoit B. Mandelbrot, a world-renowned mathematician and Yale professor, received an honorary doctor of science degree. Mandelbrot’s work on fractal sets has impacted architecture, ecology, music, linguistics, neuroscience, cinema techniques and more, earning him international prizes. Yet he told students that his career was too long in coming. “One tells young people, ‘You must not hurry to make up your mind about which field you are in. Take your time, do what you like.’ But I’m almost seventy-eight, and I still have not decided. That’s too late. Don’t rush, but don’t do it as slowly as I did. It’s too risky.”

Mamphele Ramphele, a doctor, anthropologist, and higher education administrator who is currently managing director of the World Bank, received an honorary doctor of laws degree. Ramphele, adding to the international flavor of the day, spoke of the world-wide web that laces humanity together.

“Gone are the days of isolation,” she said. “Gone are the days when countries could go it alone pursuing their national interests. . . . Today, we–living in the United States and elsewhere–are as much affected by what happens in Afghanistan as what happens to our next door neighbor. . . . For me, universities today are there to prepare global citizens. And I feel the responsibility of being a global citizen as being the heaviest of all. It is the responsibility of making history every day of our lives.”

Hugh Thompson and Larry Colburn received honorary doctor of humane letters degrees. As soldiers together, Thompson and Colburn risked their lives during the My Lai massacre in Vietnam to save thousands of native civilians from U.S. Army forces. It was not until thirty years later that they were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for their heroic actions. Both live in Atlanta and have visited the Emory campus to talk about their experiences.

“Stay away from negative peer pressure,” Thompson warned Emory graduates. “Once you step over that line and start going along with the flow or the crowd, it’s very hard to recover. Prejudice had a big part to play in that day [in 1968]. Stay away from it. . . . You’re going to have to make many decisions in your life; think about today. Think about your upbringing. Please make the right decisions because we’re depending on you–because you are our future leaders.”

Following the all-University Commencement ceremony, graduates and their families and friends scattered to the various diploma ceremonies held throughout the Emory campus. Emory College graduates stayed to receive their diplomas on the Quadrangle, after an address by class orator Sarah Byrd, an All-American cross-country runner who majored in creative writing and women’s studies.

Byrd urged her fellow graduates to have confidence as they embarked on the next leg of their journeys, buoyed by the education they have received. “We grew up thinking the best answer is in someone else’s brain,” Byrd said. “What the world needs now is the ideas and dreams that are in your head.”

Uhry’s appearance was coupled with that of another Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright, Margaret Edson, at the Oxford College Commencement. With Emory’s new Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts being constructed even as the ceremony was taking place, the combination of events served as a reminder that the arts can serve as an important reflector of life–even life at its most serious.

Snehal Desai, a theater and political science major who won Emory’s Benston Prize for Excellence in Theater Studies and Performance after directing three plays in the spring semester of his senior year, said he was thrilled that two renowned playwrights were chosen to speak the year of his Commencement. In the aftermath of September 11, Desai wrestled with how to bring out the universal truths in his own work and make the plays relevant to his audience today. His honors thesis project, Marisol, was a futuristic drama about a jaded young woman wandering a New York that is decaying and under attack. As she encounters a series of characters, grappling with issues of gender, ethnicity, and millennial malaise, she winds up “finding compassion and humanity she never knew were there,” Desai says.

Before the World Trade Center attacks, Desai was searching for ways to help his audience relate; afterward, the play’s themes became “automatically relevant.”

Both Uhry and Edson’s work accomplishes a similar resonance with the universal human themes of the time, he says.

“I believe the arts have a tremendous power to heal, and a cathartic power, to help us see ourselves and the world with more clarity and focus,” Desai said. “What theatre, like [Uhry and Edson’s] plays, does is focus on universal elements. Art can give faces and names to our struggles.”

Like the ending of his most famous play, in which friendship triumphs over differences, Uhry wrapped up his speech on a hopeful, homespun note. “It looks like Emory has done its job with you,” he told graduates. “It looks like your families have done their jobs. And now you’re gonna come out here and join the rest of us. And I think you’re gonna be all right.”–P.P.P.



© 2002 Emory University