Much of the celebration that surrounds commencement has to do with remembrance -- past mentors, major achievements, painful lessons and good times. But this year's commencement ceremony included a different kind of remembrance, not one of celebration but of sadness. Amidst the pomp and the ceremony that is commencement at Emory, the community paused to remember four members of the graduating class.
"The Class of 1996 has suffered grievous loss in the death of no fewer than three of its members and the unresolved disappearance of a fourth, a situation without parallel in our collective memory," said Dean David Bright during the Emory College diploma ceremony. "Two years ago, Shannon Melendi, then a sophomore, vanished and her case remains unsolved. J.J. Canter, Jennifer Evans and John Kelsey all met an untimely death in the past year. These events touched the entire Emory College community. While we are gathered at this annual commencement ritual celebrating the essential significance of the life of the community, it is fitting that we recollect these four who have departed from us and hold them in our hearts."
After a moment of silence, degrees were awarded posthumously to Canter, Evans and Kelsey. The parents of Evans and Kelsey were present to accept the diplomas.
"This is a beautiful way to finish up his four years at Emory, and it's a beautiful farewell to all the friends he knew," said Kelsey's mother, Janet Kelsey, a senior secretary at Yerkes Primate Research Center. "The whole campus has been so supportive."
The awarding of degrees posthumously is not a common practice at Emory. According to Assistant Secretary of the University Mary Anne Lindskog, the process began this year at the request of the senior class. "The academic record of each of these students was reviewed by the faculty of his or her major department," said Lindskog. "The faculty then recommended to Dean David Bright that the three be awarded degrees posthumously, and Dean Bright forwarded that recommendation to the provost, who took it before the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees."
Lindskog said that a posthumous degree, which is honorary, "expresses the University's belief that the recipient would have completed degree requirements but for an untimely death."
The four students had been heavily involved in the life of the University and as a result, the loss has affected a wide number of not only students, but also faculty and staff. Mark McLeod, director of the Counseling Center, described the impact of such a loss on the University as tremendous and rippling. "It has hit the whole community very hard, when you have that number of losses. I think to an extent, everyone feels a certain amount of loss and guilt, and even anger in dealing with tragedies like these," he said. "The hardest one, in some respects, was Shannon Melendi, because there was no resolution."
"I think the death of a young person is a surprise, first of all, and it does create a kind of uncertainty and ambiguity among those that are living," said University Chaplain Susan Henry-Crowe. "It makes them really challenge some of their own assumptions about life. It does give them a sense of mortality that they hadn't had in their past. The deaths of these students brought this class together in some strange ways. It really did make them closer. Two of the students were from Oxford, and I think that group tends to be close anyway. This, in an odd way, unified them."
Henry-Crowe, along with McLeod, has attempted to help members of the Emory community deal with the tragedies by not only providing counseling services, but also by conducting memorial services for friends and sometimes family members.
"I always come away from these services with a tremendous respect for the community," said McLeod, "for the people who where touched by their lives and express their feelings so eloquently, and who do whatever is necessary to support each other. That's how human beings get through events like these, through the rich relationships they have with each other."
Their classmates' deaths have brought about a renewed sense of the value of life in members of the Class of 1996, said Henry-Crowe. "In each of the students who died, there was a real sense of joy and celebration. I think that gives the surviving students a sense of sacredness and reverence for life, recognizing what they have in their relationships now."
-- Nancy M. Spitler