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Senior Oration Finalist – Olivia Campbell (’14)

The Daily Deac is wrapping up its coverage of the Senior Oration finalists this week.  The three winning orations were read at Founders’ Day Convocation (more info on the Wake Forest News website.)

Today we invite you to enjoy “A Part of Humanity” by Olivia Campbell (’14).

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During my first year at Wake Forest, I experienced a culture shock verging on existential crisis. In contrast to my hometown, Wake Forest seemed impossibly wealthy, preppy, and cliquey, and I did not understand how to integrate. It was difficult to relate to most of my classmates, something I’d never experienced before. I distinctly remember being dumbfounded when, multiple times during my freshman year, I said “hello” to a passing stranger or even classmate and received a blank stare in return. This led me to ask the following questions: How have I, a slightly extroverted people-pleaser, inserted myself into a situation where I can find no common ground with my peers? How can I come to fit in with these students, and what does it say about me that I have not been able to so far? Does the fact that I can’t make sense of college mean I won’t be able to make sense of people in the real world, or for the rest of my life?

I handled my culture shock in all the wrong ways. Being appalled by many of my peers’ exclusivity, partying, and other antics allowed me to “other” them, or set myself apart from them, effortlessly. As I concluded that we had nothing in common, I took the easy way out; I assumed Wake’s culture was not for me and disengaged.

While doing my best to ignore rather than delve into the enigma that is Wake’s student body, I took an eclectic assortment of classes. I contently gathered knowledge without leaving my comfort zone. That is, until my junior year, when I studied abroad with a professor who challenged everything I knew. Literally—every word I spoke was scrutinized for evidence of social construction, bias, implicit assumptions. He constantly dissected my words and thoughts; even sentences used to explain initial claims were probed in a never-ending cycle of questions meant to teach us about ourselves, and, in turn, others. For example, in our first class, having claimed that men and women are physically different, I was asked to define “physical,” “men,” and “women,” then asked how my definition excludes people who are neither or both. Thirty minutes later, we had meandered to chromosomal differences as well as gender roles.

To say the least, I was not used to this. When I raised my hand in class, I did so because I wanted to bring up a specific point, not to evaluate myself. I became so frustrated that many debates both in and out of the classroom ended in tears, and I dreaded going to class. I routinely ducked behind furniture to avoid confrontation when moving about the house. But in spite of this, I could not keep my mouth shut. I continued offering up tidbits of myself for verbal dissection, unwilling to give up until I understood what he was trying to impress on me. As much as I wanted to ignore my professor, something about these conversations was starting to resonate with me. Not only did I rediscover the power of language, so easily overlooked; I was also learning how to examine and improve my own mind, casting resentment and embarrassment aside in order to grow.

In this class, I recognized for the first time my practice of “othering” fellow Wake students. But simply acknowledging the problem was not enough. I had put myself in a box apart from an entire group of people, and I was desperate to break out and explore. Luckily, time abroad gave me the opportunity to do just that.

During that semester in Europe, I felt oddly immune to social expectations people my age usually place on each other. When interacting with Europeans, if I did something awkward or bizarre, it was attributed to the fact that I was foreign rather than inept. I was automatically forgiven for all of my quirks. I more and more frequently forgot to “check” myself in social situations; instead, I just was. I felt liberated.

That summer, I experienced the same phenomenon when I camped in the Amazon with a group of Peruvian students in spite of the fact that I don’t speak Spanish. Again, the social disconnect between them and me allowed me to feel exponentially more comfortable and connected to them. I couldn’t depend on American customs or the English language to make sense of our interactions, so I was forced to rely on intuition and emotion instead. It was there, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, that I finally realized how remarkably similar all human beings are. We are all afraid sometimes; we seek approval; we want the best for someone else in our lives. I understood that truly, we share a language. Emotionally charged images from all of my travels popped into my head: watching an Amazonian native tenderly carry her newborn through the jungle; feeding sick stray cats with an elderly Greek man; nearly jumping out of our boat in excitement as a Peruvian researcher and I finally spotted an elusive jaguar; laughing apologetically as I butchered a waltz with a young Austrian. The universal sentiment in each transcended time and language, coming through clear as day. I had found the tools I needed to relate to others independently of culture.

Returning to Wake for my senior year after many months abroad, I was delighted to find that my former feelings of culture shock had vanished. I caught myself grinning as I walked around campus, inwardly pleased by how simple this all was, by how much sense it made. Now very much at ease, I stopped to chat with strangers and friends, cheered at football games, performed in choral concerts, and volunteered in the community.

I’ve heard the most valuable lessons are those you don’t realize you need to learn. Wake Forest has given me a most unexpected and important skill: a heightened ability to empathize, without qualifications. If you are a human being, we can find a shared experience. These miniscule commonalities are the building blocks of relationships. Now that I know this, it seems laughable to feel lost or lonely, even as I face graduation and an unpredictable future. I feel empowered because I am at home anywhere there are people.

Now, Pro Humanitate has a new meaning to me: to be truly capable of doing something for the good of humanity, you must first understand how you are a part of it. I now understand how I am a part of Wake Forest, and for that I will always be grateful.

Category: academics, campus life, events