Senior Oration: Anne Hillgartner ’15

In the coming weeks, the Daily Deac will feature the finalists for Senior Orations.  Three students were chosen to read their Senior Oration during Founders’ Day Convocation.  But all of the top ten orations are worth sharing, and we’ll publish one at a time.

Today’s Senior Oration is Mentorship, by Anne Hillgartner ’15.

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I can remember the best week of my life: it was in September of my sophomore year at Wake Forest.  I was only three weeks into my new internship with the Secrest Artists Series and we were hosting our first event, the Wayne Shorter Jazz Quartet.  One of my responsibilities was transporting the artists to and from the airport, their hotel, and wherever they wanted to go.  This was not a chore, but rather it meant I got to interact with musicians I had admired for years.  At the end of the week full of film screenings, master classes, and performances, I was driving the pianist, Danilo Perez, to the airport at six o’clock in the morning.  Despite the hour and his exhaustion, he was talkative, asking me about what it was like to be a student and helping me study for my Spanish test later that day.  In our conversation, he gave me a piece of advice that I’ve never forgotten.  He said, “Believe in other people and the enthusiasm they have.”  When he got out of the car, I scribbled down some notes on a scrap of paper and this line was one of them.

Now two years later, I realize the importance of having enthusiasm for the work and passion of other people.  My Wake Forest experience has been set apart because my mentors characterize Perez’s advice.  The support I have received from professors, supervisors, and friends has done more than made me knowledgeable, write effectively, and hone my musical skills.  It has left me with a profound sense of gratitude for those who showed excitement for my interests; who took the time to support my academic pursuits; who were essential parts of the web of resources.  Wake Forest’s greatest gift to me has been my mentors. 

So, who are they?

I was lucky to have an internship with the Secrest Artists Series not only because it exposed me to wonderful musicians like Danilo Perez and Wayne Shorter, but also because it introduced me to my first mentor: Lillian Shelton.  She was an example of how to call upon all the resources of the university—the Secrest series was run only by two people: Lillian and me.  Yet what made the Series possible was the support of so many other offices at the university.  For the Wayne Shorter event, we partnered with the biology department, the office of sustainability, campus life, and IPLACe. Lillian always took me to meetings with advisors, artist managers, and administrators even though I was only a student.  She insisted on introducing me to all the people she knew.  The result of her mentoring was that I realized early in my college career the great wealth of individuals that wanted to work together, were happy to provide free thoughts and advice, and wanted to see our work at the Secrest Series prosper because they believed it added value to the Wake Forest community.

Academically, Wake Forest prides itself on the close relationship between students and faculty encouraged by research, office hours, and small class sizes.  I experienced this benefit myself when I decided to write a thesis for my history major.  I wanted a way to combine my interest in history, my passion for music, and my love of Venice (where I studied abroad).  So, I dreamed up an idea to study a little known Venetian composer named Luigi Nono, and ask the question, “how did an upbringing during the revolution of Mussolini’s Fascism affect his life experience?”.  I knew his archives were located in Venice, and that his widow was still alive, so I wanted to return to the city to research and meet with her.  As you can guess, this wasn’t going to be an easy or inexpensive dream.  But, when I walked into Dr. Peter Kairoff’s office to pitch the idea, he just said “done” practically before I had finished my sentence.  Through his resources, he connected me with the composer’s widow for an interview, helped me find funding, and secure a place to stay.  Dr. Kairoff had confidence in me, something that I really needed as I undertook this giant, risky project.  Similarly, my history advisor, Dr. Alan Williams, supported my alternative topic and helped me take the experience and translate it to my best possible thesis.  He was not just concerned with the successful completion of the paper.  He cared about the process—making sure that broader research methods and critical thinking across disciplines were the real things I was learning.

These are just three examples of mentors, but I could name well over fifty individuals that have left an impermeable mark on my college experience.

As an upperclassman, I was confronted with a situation where I was needed for support.  After my junior year, I had to make the decision to quit or continue marching band.  My first two years of band had been exhausting: I had seen Wake Forest lose more times than win.  I had a great family from marching band, but, let’s be honest: it was not always fun to be out in the cold, fingers bare, wind whipping through the stadium, raining, playing a clarinet for five hours, staying all the way to the end of the game, especially at a game that we might lose.  My senior year there would be two new coaches and new band director, and the rebuilding year would present many new challenges.  Nevertheless, I decided to continue in the marching band.  Call me crazy.. My decision was inspired by the example of my mentors who had supported me even if it made their lives a little harder.  Though I hadn’t seen great years in Wake Forest sports, it was more important to me to be a source of support for the teams than to have my Saturday afternoons to myself.  Often times the marching band members are counted on to be an example of enthusiasm for the stadium. I really believe that our presence does not go unnoticed by the players and I think our supporting role is an invaluable contribution to the school spirit of Wake Forest.

As I venture into post-graduate life, I will take with me the inspiration and lessons of mentorship at Wake Forest.  My mentors taught me the value in showing excitement for other people’s ideas, not just my own.  They showed me that great things could happen not only when you are a leader, but also when you are a great supporter of the work of other people.  They taught me to appreciate and use the talents and resources at Wake Forest.  Their selflessness was found not a single act, an afternoon of volunteering, or an evening at the soup kitchen, but in an enduring commitment to their students. Their approach to life valued working together and the strength of ideas when combined rather than standing separate.  My mentors have showed me the validity of Danilo Perez’s advice in the car when I was nineteen: to believe in other people’s enthusiasm.  The greatest lessons of my education could not have been learned through books alone.  These lifelong lessons were the product of the joint effort and collaboration with my Wake Forest mentors. Their example is my continuing source of inspiration.

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