Emory Report
April 20, 2009
Volume 61, Number 28


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April 20
, 2009
Yearning for learning is a sound investment

Juana Clem McGhee’95T is program coordinator, Religions and the Human Spirit strategic initiative.

I learned some early lessons at age 6, when my father died in a tragic accident, leaving my mom and me on our own for several years. I came to understand in a way different than my peers that I needed to be able to financially support myself as a woman. That formative experience also made me realize that nothing in this life is guaranteed, that I need to cherish every moment and make the most of whatever comes my way.

Amidst pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accounting at the University of Texas, I filled up elective slots and devoted an extra year to study psychology, sociology and philosophy. The business degree would provide a measure of certainty and stability in terms of employment, but my mind and heart yearned for something more.

While the majority of professional accountants specialize in either auditing or taxation, I had a stronger preference for the consulting route. I enjoyed working closely with business owners, some in the start-up phase of a new venture, others at a critical juncture of growth, all looking for ways to improve their operational functioning. In many cases, they knew their particular industries well, but they sought guidance to maneuver through administrative processes and managerial aspects of leading a successful enterprise. Working with a whole host of entrepreneurs, I found myself in a sort of dual role as both teacher and student, learning about the essential elements of their organizations and equipping them with basic tools for their operations.

That educational theme, a yearning for learning, has been consistent throughout my life. I remember being a preschool-aged child, sitting on the front porch, watching neighborhood kids get on the school bus in the mornings. I wanted to be on that bus with them. One morning I packed a bag with books, ran out the front door, darted across the street and got one foot on the steps of the large yellow bus, before my mom grabbed me by the arm to take me back home until another year passed and it was time for me to start school.

Almost 25 years later, my mom smiled when I told her I was moving to Atlanta to study at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. Another 20 years have come and gone since then and Mom is still smiling, as I am now employed at the University. She often reminds me with much fondness in her voice, “You have always loved school.”

And she is right. School has always been a place where I can ask questions and ponder possibilities, previously when I was enrolled as a student and currently as I am employed as a staff member. Working at Emory provides me with opportunities to put my educational training and professional experience to good use, for my own sense of personal satisfaction and for the benefit of others as well. There are certainly many days when I rely on more practical aspects related to business and accounting, in terms of logistical planning, budget presentations, etc. There are also numerous occasions when I draw upon more creative dimensions, as I join with other individuals and groups to conceptualize programs that serve present needs and build for the future.

I am extremely fortunate and tremendously grateful to partner with faculty, administrators, staff and students who are actively engaged in exciting interdisciplinary programs across the University. Their wide visions and deep commitments encourage me to stretch beyond the routine and inspire me to reach past the ordinary.

In 2003 in response to U.S. military action in Iraq, I was involved in planning for the first Classroom on the Quad at Emory. I was truly honored when the committee invited me to contribute something more than my administrative skills, to offer my own voice as a speaker on such an important occasion. That experience remains with me still, being one among thousands of people filling the grassy Quadrangle, sharing vastly differing perspectives on international matters.

The following three years, in connection with my work with the Emory College Language Center and as a member of the King Week planning committee, collaborating with faculty and staff colleagues I organized an annual Listening Project. Faculty and students read from speeches and writings of human rights activists from around the world, reading first in the native languages, followed by English translations.

The event also provided an opportunity to reach out to the larger Atlanta area community by including among the readers young students and their families from Carey Reynolds Elementary School and the International Community School. The memories are poignant, watching closely and listening attentively as University students read proudly from difficult texts written in languages often not their own; being moved to tears as elementary students, some of them refugees, read from works by political activists from their war-ravaged countries.

Most recently, in conjunction with my current position working with the Religions and Human Spirit strategic initiative, I was delighted to present Giving Voice, an evening of music featuring internationally acclaimed guest artists Kirk Whalum and John Stoddart, along with Emory-affiliated musicians Myron McGhee and Voices of Inner Strength. I have enjoyed their separate performances countless times over the span of 20 years. Bringing them together in one place was a dream come true. It was exactly what I hoped for, as they poured out their gifts on the hundreds of us gathered there, giving voice to all that it means to be human, stirring a full range of emotions, from intense joy to immense sorrow, healing with every note emanating from their instruments, bodies, minds and hearts.

When people inquire about my work at Emory, I usually respond by saying it is an excellent fit for my background and interests. Many days are filled with routine activities and familiar encounters, much of which I actually enjoy. Then there are some exceptional days characterized by extraordinary experiences, making all the hard work worthwhile, nourishing my creative longings and enlivening my spirit.