Senior Oration: Finding Inspiration Outside the Institution – by Callie Cleckner (’17)

Happy Monday, Deac families!  I am on the road most of this week, so I have pre-scheduled some Daily Deacs.  Today I bring you one of the Top 10 Senior Orations – reflections written by our seniors.  This is the work of Callie Cleckner (’17): “Finding Inspiration Outside the Institution.”

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I’m not here to inspire you to do great things. This university already attracts and cultivates inspired, ambitious, and creative learners who do great things.

Yes, most of us had that crushing moment of failure as first-years in difficult courses. But, we adapted. For most of us here today, we learned how to mold to the system as we all have in the past. In high school, we knew how to get A’s how to sign up for the right clubs and how to get into great schools like this one.

Now, we know how to pass college courses, build a resume, and interview for jobs or graduate programs. However, through the educational conditioning and professional training academia often becomes a constant barrage of ego-boosting with no regard for our motto—“Pro Humanitate.”

Despite being a first-generation college student, raised by a working-class family, my experience in higher education has made it increasingly easy to discredit others. I’ve looked down on those who may lack access to education, tout different beliefs than mine, or originate from cultures that might not coincide with my own.

I find myself slipping into a worldview that enables me to see my beliefs as the most correct and the most righteous due to my prestigious education.

What I am here to do today is remind you and myself of our fellow citizens and non-citizens who never learned how to play the system. Those who fell behind in our public school systems our segregated neighborhoods or our stratified social systems.

Some of the people sitting next to you today beat those odds and their struggles did not end with an acceptance to this school. There are students here who face fears of deportation, physical violence, and the obliteration of basic civil rights. Alternatively, many of us here at this elite private university were conditioned into a far simpler reality—with our lives preplanned by those who came before us.

With just a bachelor’s degree, we are part of the highest ranks of our global society, and we act like it. But, what we need to do is start acting like compassionate leaders in a world that desperately lacks both equity and equality. Last November, many of us in academia were shocked by the results of the presidential election.

How could this overthrow have happened?

We laughed about this candidate for over a year.

While it is nearly impossible to understand exactly why this election turned out the way it did, it is even more impossible to understand if we never leave our infamous bubble.

Our bubble is one that is both physical and metaphorical. We seldom leave campus to escape our educated peers and beautiful buildings, and we even more seldom leave our beliefs to examine others’. The “Wake Forest Bubble” is just a small reflection of the phenomenon academia—and even more broadly, class stratification—creates among groups of people.

We forget to look at those who we assume are beneath us—we label them “uninformed” and “ignorant.” Instead, we sit around and bolster one another. We refuse to look at our fellow citizens’ anxieties and concerns. We focus only on what we think are refined and innovative ideas.

There is something special about us. We’re smart and hardworking. But, we’re also special for a more important reason. We have the capacity to improve the lives of others.

Yet with the awards and honors, high salaries and esteemed titles, we keep looking to bigger and better things. Perhaps, instead of looking above and beyond, we should start looking at those who do not reaffirm our opinions and our social statuses.

Instead of dismissing opposing viewpoints as blatantly incorrect or harmful, we should start looking at the root of our problems, rather than the greater byproducts. While I would never ask you to condone the extreme rhetoric that invigorated this political movement, I would say that it is imperative that we evaluate where these anxieties are derived from and how we can combat their underlying causes.

It is not enough to say an executive order is discriminatory or a proposal is unconstitutional. Instead we have to ask: why was this juggernaut supported? And, how can we improve access to education and resources, so that the horrifying parts of this movement can be stopped before it is too late for some of our peers?

We are in positions of power—unfortunately, some more so than others. With these positions of power, we have the capacity to change our society. However, that capacity lies not only in our access to power, but our awareness of those who lack power.

Those are the people we should be conversing with—those are the masses that we need to understand and connect with to make real, viable changes. It is undeniable that some of the most profound sources of inspiration are the overlooked, the misunderstood, and the forgotten.

Whoever your role model is—be it Ronald Reagan, Gandhi, Maya Angelou, Jesus, or Bernie Sanders…he or she knew the path to success lies in the underdog.

In the past four years, the students, faculty and staff at this school have challenged me, inspired me, and conditioned me. I have been conditioned into someone who can read quickly, write eloquently, and speak effectively. I am no longer the underdog.

My daily struggle now comes in looking around me. It has become easy to look up, and to work toward the next step in my life. What is not easy is looking around at my fellow citizens to ask how we, together, can begin forging a path for a greater collective future.

In the end, individual success is entirely dependent on the successes of those around me. This election has quickly proven that we need one another to make change especially those we assume are wrong. Half of our electorate did not feel successful, and the other half is now suffering, though some far, far more than others.

Fifty-four years ago, Martin Luther King Jr said, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism, or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”

It is incredibly unfortunate, yet incredibly apt that I am able to quote Dr. King almost fifty years after his assassination. But, our culture has made it incredibly easy to walk in selfishness. In fact, we encourage it. Everyone wants to be on top, even in the places that encourage equality and respect like this one.

Yet, the greatest irony in this meritocracy is that we are only harming ourselves in our egotistical goals. We are looking for the next promotion, the next award, or the next cause to speak out against. But, we are forgetting who we are stepping over for that promotion, and who we are speaking out against.

It is only fair and healthy that you have your boundaries, but by routinely putting ourselves first we become the uninformed that we routinely dismiss.

Regardless of your expertise or interests, you have to be able to experience how the other half lives, thinks, and survives. Because as much as we like to talk about diversity and acceptance, it is rare that we show it.

So as many of us leave in May, to our new schools or exciting jobs, we will bring along the valuable skills and knowledge we gained at mother so dear, but in your pursuits, don’t forget the underdogs, or the forsaken, because their opinions matter a lot more than we often choose to believe.

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