Lighting the Way Forward: When graduating seniors cross the bridge into the community of alumni, it's time to turn education into action.

One of the more memorable scenes in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society features Robin Williams, as English teacher John Keating, quoting Walt Whitman to a class of awkward, restive prep-school boys. Whitman’s O Me! O Life! manages to work three key changes into nine short lines, with most of them spent questioning the worth of pretty much everything, himself most of all—what’s the point?—before moving on to answer: That you are here—that life exists and identity, that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. 

It’s one thing to move from despair to resignation—we are here; we exist. But then Whitman slips in identity—which signals something quite different from mere existence—to set up the startling finish that makes the boys stir and look up: You may contribute a verse. 

Like Keating’s class, Emory students spend most of their time here soaking up the accumulated knowledge of others— listening, reading, synthesizing, striving for understanding. But they’re changed a little by every choice they make along the way. Then comes the gradual realization that it’s time to shift the focus to the future, when they start trusting their original thoughts and ideas and letting their own questions, rather than the answers already reached by others, lead the way forward. And asking themselves what their contribution will be. 

Emory’s first class of “40 Under Forty” outstanding young alumni are a little ahead of the game. According to the Emory Alumni Association nomination criteria, they have made an impact in business, research, artistic, leadership, community, educational, and/or philanthropic endeavors; they have demonstrated notable civic involvement, leadership, or recognition; and they have been recognized as an intellectual leader or representative of a field or industry. And they have done all that before age forty. In Whitman’s play, they’re at least a few lines into writing their own verse. 

The lines written by Emory researchers emerge letter by letter and word by word. Their future impact can be difficult to decipher when it begins in the lab—the slight shift in a chemical compound, the unexpected result in a routine experiment, the rephrased question that reveals an answer previously unimagined. That drive for discovery is what sparks the chain reaction leading to the creation of novel treatments that may improve health, save lives, and make new verses possible. 

When women were formally admitted to Emory, they could have settled for simply being “here.” They didn’t. A century later, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what the university would be without the verses they have written into its history. 

To quote another powerful play, Hamilton, history has its eyes on you. What an honor to contribute a verse.

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