Senior Oration by Marlee Stark (’17)

Throughout the spring, I will occasionally feature one of the Top 10 Senior Orations from this year’s senior class.  Today’s oration is called “On Quitting Omission” and it is by Marlee Stark (’17).  Enjoy!

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Entering my final semester at Wake Forest, I have learned to accept a hard truth about myself: I am absolutely and utterly nostalgic, often painfully so. Over winter break, I booted up my pre-college laptop to sift through old writing assignments and photos in an attempt to de- clutter. Eventually I arrived at the file folder entitled ‘College,’ punctuated by a triple exclamation mark. Here I was, staring at what was once my youthful magnum opus and cringing at the thought of re-reading my own personal statement. I wholly expected it to be fraught with cliché and awkwardly strung together words lifted straight out of a thesaurus. But I believe that what I found in this 580-word document is an important part of understanding where I am today. It is a means of excavating my Wake Forest experience to understand what my four years spent here have imparted to me as a student and as a person alike.

When trying to condense the experiences that speak to who one is as a person into a brief, readable narrative form, there is inevitably a deeply critical selection process at play. There are facts and memories about oneself that are systematically sorted into piles labeled ‘reveal’ and ‘omit.’ I now recognize that in presenting my seventeen year old self to colleges and later as a first and second year student to my peers and professors, I left a great deal of myself in that omit pile. This is readily apparent in my personal statement, referencing heredity, natural selection, the process of creating memory, the Lockean law of nature, and even Navajo design-making within the course of a few paragraphs. This was a means not only to describe how I see my family line shaping me as a person but also to (not so) subtly attempt to present myself as a student toying with the idea of being pre-med with a lingering interest in the social sciences. In other words, it was a display of trying too hard to beef up my reveal pile. But what stands out more clearly to me now is a rather sterile approach to a discussion of family, memory, and community. In my omit pile was a simultaneous shame and pride in being born and raised in a small southern town, in having but one generation separate me from a family occupation of farming and the complementary legacy of struggle, and in feeling a great deal of appreciation for the community that raised me but nonetheless busting at the seams to move on geographically and academically.

I came to Wake Forest believing in stories—in the spoken word, in the hand-me-down tunes of my own family folklore, and, most importantly, in the power of a good collection of personal essays. In high school, I fell in love with Joan Didion, William Zinnser, and Annie Dillard. In college, my love of memoir made way for bell hooks, Cynthia Ozick, and Roxane Gay among others. But what I had not yet come to understand, what I am just now starting to come to terms with, is that an individual’s story is not merely spun by the fates that be. Quite contrary, the greatest lesson I have received in college is that of learning to be comfortable with taking ownership of myself and my own ideas. That is to say that these four years have taught me that I am very much in charge of how my own narrative unfolds. But harnessing this control is undoubtedly a difficult process in itself, requiring feedback from others along the way.

During my second semester here, I found myself at a scholarship dinner, waiting my turn to make a brief introduction to a group of peers and faculty members. It was nothing too thought- intensive but, as an introvert, it nonetheless required a few precursory run-throughs in my head beforehand. Hello, my name is Marlee Stark. I am a first year student originally from Fayetteville, Arkansas and intend to double major in Economics and Political Science. Without missing a beat, my adviser Dr. Tom Phillips politely pointed out what was likely a subconscious self-erasure on my behalf.

“Just originally? Are you not still from Fayetteville?”

Now I am almost as sentimental as I am prone to embarrassment. While I certainly turned an impressive shade of pink that evening, I consider this to be a moment that continues to color the way I understand and present myself today, an uneven but important stitch in the fabric of my Wake Forest experience and education. For me, college was something I long conceptualized as an escape. It was a means of moving away from a pocket of the country uncomfortably wedged between the Midwest and the South where I often felt out of place on the basis of my politics and my interests. But today I see my collegiate years as something far more important: it was a span of time in my life where I started to learn to be happy with myself but to never be satisfied or grow complacent as a result.

In her most recent memoir Blue Nights, Joan Didion writes, “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.” In reflecting on my time within the Wake Forest community, this sentiment seems particularly true. It is easy to remember the highlight reel—my first winter in the Forest, late night conversations in Campus Grounds, and watching the campus come into bloom on Davis Field among countless others come to mind.

But not all days have been happy or easy here, and I feel that it is important to remember the blue as vibrantly as the bright. The value I have found in my Wake Forest education is embedded in times where I found myself upset, overwrought, or uncomfortable. These were moments where I feared exposing the rougher parts of myself, situations where I was prompted to resist the danger of self-erasure and omission. There are, however, numerous days and instances in which I have found immaculate displays of hope and curiosity and a reminder to care unabashedly for one another.

House and home are two connected though variant concepts. We truly live charmed lives when four years spent at university can fall into both of these categories at once. The concept of home, of course, is tethered to a sense of belonging, to an ever-expansive notion of who constitutes your family. A community’s importance lies in its dynamic nature, in its malleability. We shape it as we see fit, stowing away a personalized identity in the process. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have found people on this campus who have welcomed, challenged, and nurtured me alike, individuals who I have come to understand as members of my own Wake Forest family of sorts. I have long secretly considered Dr. Wanda Balzano of the WGS Department to be my first friend on this campus. She has taught me the value of a quick response and how to infuse activism with optimism. Likewise, Dr. Angéla Kóczé believed in helping me explore an interest in women’s entrepreneurship when I was still a little green behind the ears and, quite frankly, had no idea what I was doing. And I have had countless other individuals who have taught me to respect myself enough to be honest about who I am and what I believe.

At Wake Forest, I have learned to find my home in myself and in others wherever I go, to expand it in ways I did not initially believe to be possible or comfortable. Whether it was during a summer researching in Paris, a semester studying European politics in London, or a few years in Winston-Salem re-learning how to learn about myself, the many sub-communities in which I have found refuge have cultivated a willingness and a desire to balance who I have been with who I am and who I wish to be. Even in youth there is, oddly enough at times, an overwhelming sense of aging, which is inevitably associated with a backslide into disorder. I would, however, argue that with age and aid of education I have moved closer to an ordered sense of self. I have learned to quit omitting.

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