Kendall Huennekens (’17) Senior Oration: “The Demon Deacon on My Shoulder”

Happy Humpday, Deac families.  It’s the middle of the week, which means (sadly) that my vacation is half over.  Today we are featuring another Senior Oration – from Kendall Huennekens (’17).  This is entitled “The Demon Deacon on My Shoulder.”

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As a child you look to the world with an optimism that is characteristic of youth, providing a shield that is chipped away piece by piece in tandem with the expansion of your experience and contact with the outside world.  Far too often, the loss of youth corresponds directly with the loss of hope and optimism, corroding into cynicism and despair at the realization of just how small and powerless you are amidst the terrible things that exist in the world.  Incidentally, my earliest memory is of the day that forced me into irrevocable contact with the knowledge that my world, my little bubble, was not in fact invincible, and was far more vulnerable than I could ever have imagined: September 11, 2001. I vividly remember how my mom, brother, and I sat in shock as we watched the news coverage of the towers burning to the ground, numb with horror, sadness, and fear. As a 6 year-old it was nearly impossible to understand what was happening, and more fundamentally, why it had happened.

This day marked the first puncture in the bubble my parents had worked so hard to construct, the first realization that evil in its purest form existed outside the small slice of the world on which I lived, played, and grew. Parents try to protect their children as much as they can, just as Wake Forest provides shelter and security to its students for the four years they live, study, and grow on its campus. But in order to reach our full potential, we must shed the protection of our parents, teachers, and our university communities if we wish to fully discover who we are and can be. For as wonderful as it is to live in a bubble, it can also be dangerous if it confines you to remain within its bounds where you are comfortable, rather than pushing through these constraints and continuing to grow.

People often refer to Wake Forest as a bubble, an enclosed community apart from the rest of Winston-Salem that serves as an incubator of intellectual exchange and growth. While the notion is both criticized and praised, I have had ample time to reflect on this ‘bubble,’ and how it has contributed to my growth as a person and a demon deacon. I have found that the isolation implied by ‘being in a bubble’ has been far from the case in regards to my Wake Forest experience, and remaining isolated on this campus is often through ones own volition.

My first foray into Winston began my freshman fall as a Deac, as a big sister to a kindergarten boy at an elementary school just a few miles from here, but seemingly worlds away. Driving just two miles down university parkway, through neighborhoods that looked nothing like the tree-lined, manicured lawns of Reynolda and Buena Vista, I wondered how it came to be that the city was so divided. This quickly morphed into anxiety that the teachers and students at the school would think poorly of me for being a ‘snobby Wake Forest student’ living behind a gate, so separated from the rest of the city.  In reality, however, the only noteworthy difference that mattered to Israel, my ‘little brother’, was my failure to construct an adequate Lego robot for us to play with.  He was completely unbothered that we had different skin colors or backgrounds. Much of this unconcern can be attributed to his age, but this only introduces another point; we do not become aware of our differences until they are pointed out to us by the world, and we are made to feel that we are different. No child should ever be faced with the realization, as Israel one day soon will be, that he will have to, “work twice as hard for half as much,” a burden that never pierced the happy bubble of my childhood. This instance was my first recognition of what Pro Humanitate, our motto, meant to me- a duty to not allow the privilege of attending Wake Forest isolate me from the reality of my community.

My definition of Pro Humanitate was again enriched my junior year as an intern at a refugee resettlement agency, spending many afternoons with men and women with whom I shared no common language, in parts of Winston-Salem I had never before seen. One afternoon at the health department, waiting with a Syrian woman and her young daughter as the hours dragged slowly by, I resolved myself to attempt to entertain the young girl by trying my hand at Arabic, thanks to two semesters I had taken here at Wake. This attempt quickly evolved into a game, where she would write words and dissolve into laughter as I hopelessly attempted to pronounce them. I was once again shown the remarkable strength of a child, who retained a shield of optimism and hope despite being forced to flee her country and brave a strange new place. In a world completely alien to her, she has maintained an unflagging hope and belief in the goodness of people. I have never stopped thinking of her, and believe we can all take heart in her example as we progress to new places beyond Wake Forest’s sheltering walls.

These are just two of the countless opportunities I have had to break out of the so-called “Wake Forest bubble” and interact with my community, and have been some of the most valuable experiences I have had at Wake. I urge you all to take these same steps, and work to counteract the notion of Wake Forest students as content to operate solely inside our gated community and not for the greater good of those around us, where some of the most wonderful opportunities for deacons exist.

The Wake Forest bubble can be a wonderful thing, especially for arriving college students. This is a place to gain our bearings and cultivate our passions, beliefs, and ideas/without these fledgling convictions being stifled or extinguished by outside pressures.  This prepares each of us for the moment we will ‘burst the bubble’, stepping out of it far more capable of forming and defending our own convictions and beliefs than before we entered.

I would like to conclude with a quote from one of my favorite poets, Rupi Kaur. While the passage specifically addresses women, I believe it applies to all students. Kaur said that the greatest lesson a woman can learn is, “that since day one, she’s already had everything she needs within herself. It’s the world that convinced her she did not.” This principle applies to our minds, empathy, and moral compass that push us to be for all of humanity rather than solely for ourselves-Pro Humanitate.   Wake Forest has taught me to never let what we call the ‘real world,’ which pushes and pulls at our bubble here in Winston-Salem, ever discourage me from pursuing an opportunity or adventure just because convention tells me that I cannot or should not.

I urge everyone, students and professors alike, to remember the utter confidence in yourself and in the greatness of the world that you felt as a child. I try to view this confidence as the demon deacon on my shoulder; I will seek to wholeheartedly reject feelings of self-doubt and instead consciously expand my bubble to include an array of people, ideas, and experiences, remembering the fearlessness I possessed before the world told me that I was not capable or deserving of all that life has to offer me. This is what Pro Humanitate means to me-an unrelenting embrace and acknowledgement of the power humanity can achieve when we step out of our narrow confines and believe that we deserve to both do good and receive good, for ourselves and the world around us. Thank you.

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