We hope you have been enjoying our Senior Oration Finalist coverage. These seniors are providing interesting and compelling reflections about their formative moments and experiences at Mother So Dear. If you missed the winning orations read at Founders’ Day Convocation, they are featured on the Wake Forest News website.
Today we invite you to enjoy “Education Through Service” by Erin Hellman (’14).
It was the Saturday before Halloween and, like all Saturdays this past fall semester, I was up early, excited to see the smiling face of my favorite 5th grader, Charice. Last year a fellow Wake Forest senior and I started a program at Ashley Elementary that we call “Saturday Academy.” Ashley Elementary is located less than 5 miles from our campus but is one of the lowest performing schools in the district. 91% of the students are considered low income and fewer than 20% of the students pass the state mandated standardized tests. With this challenge in mind, we began working at Ashley hoping to be one piece to the puzzle of closing the opportunity and achievement gaps that emerge as early as elementary school. With other Wake Forest students who have volunteered their time, we commute to Ashley Elementary every Saturday morning to tutor the students in math, reading, and healthy eating. Although as tutors our intent was to give back to the Winston-Salem community by helping young people, we quickly learned that these students and their families had much to teach us as well. What they have taught me has significantly enhanced by Wake Forest education, providing context for what I have learned in the classroom.
On this particular Saturday morning, the cafeteria was abuzz with students telling us about their plans for Halloween. Charice, greeted me with her usual excitement and immediately began chattering about the costume that she had planned to wear. I always love hearing about what the students are doing and immediately began asking questions. We were having a nice, lighthearted conversation until I naively asked if she would be trick-or-treating in her neighborhood. She adopted a very serious tone, as if she were now an adult talking to a naïve child, and began to tell me about the dangers of her neighborhood, offering a powerful narrative that indicated her awareness of the roles that race and class play in her life.
In my sophomore year after declaring a Sociology major with a focus on education, I began to realize that I would be spending many hours studying inequality in our country. I became fascinated by the many false assumptions that we make about people based on their race or class, and the way in which two individuals living less than 5 miles from one another, the distance that separates me and the students I work with at Ashley, can be going to school with such different perspectives and opportunities.
Many of these concepts were only things that I had read about growing up, having never had the experiences myself. As I became more immersed in my class work, I decided that I needed to know firsthand the people I was studying in order to really understand the issues. This need led me to Ashley Elementary, and there I found what had been missing from my education.
I believe the opportunity and achievement gaps are the largest problem facing American education. As I have learned in my courses at Wake Forest, many of our schools remain deeply segregated by both race and class. Opportunities for students often differ based on where they were fortunate enough to be born, and these opportunities, or lack thereof, have a profound impact on students’ future outcomes. By the 4th grade low-income and minority students are, on average, already 2 years behind their more affluent peers, and the gap continues to grow throughout their schooling. Of the 30% of low income and minority students that enroll in college, fewer than half ever graduate. Although I had studied these problems in my classes at Wake, only when I immersed myself in the community did I truly begin to understand the inequality of opportunity that exists in our society. These experiences have led to a passion for helping young people and the drive to do something about the inequality that in our society.
The students at Ashley are facing many more challenges than I did as a child, but they have shown more perseverance and hope than imaginable. In spite of their own limited resources, their parents work extremely hard to provide the best that they can for their children. Some don’t even have cars to bring their children to school on Saturday mornings, but they always ensure that they are there and ready to work. All of the students tell me with excitement about their plans to graduate from high school and attend college, although all of them will be first generation college students. Their parents are hopeful as well, despite the fact that many of them know there’s deep uncertainty about their ability to afford college expenses.
My time at Ashley has taught me so much about the “real” world, both in the bad and very good sense; these highs and lows have contributed immensely to my education. These Ashley students and their families have welcomed me and the other Wake Forest students into their lives, not as “others” but as friends. They have shown us that, although we have had different opportunities and experiences, we all share a hope for our future. We all strive to improve ourselves, and we all have genuine joy in working and learning together. As I study issues pertaining to race, class, and opportunity I can now put a face to the names, better understand the complexity of the issues, and relate them to my own experiences. In the classroom, there is a new depth to my understanding and my ability to formulate solutions, resulting from what my students have taught me.
The students at Ashley have taught me that we have an obligation to act. We cannot accept a world without hope or opportunity and be content with our current levels of inequality, the number of children in poverty, and the lack of safe neighborhoods. These students and their families are no longer “others” to me who I only read about. They are my neighbors, my friends, my “family,” for whom I care deeply. As such, I can’t ignore them, and I must carry with me the education I have received from them, always remembering that everyone who lacks equality and opportunity is nevertheless a person, a member of my community, and a friend.
Thus, the beauty of my Wake Forest education is that I have been able to create a bridge from what I have learned in the classroom to the actual world in which we live. The spirit of “pro humanitate” has had a profound impact on my concept of an individual’s responsibility toward the world and on my plans for the future. I leave Wake Forest a more compassionate and empathetic person than when I entered. We all have great power as educated individuals and the opportunity to choose how we will exercise that power. I am looking forward, upon graduation, to begin teaching and empowering students through education. I thank Wake Forest for putting me on this path, and my wonderful peers and professors who have supported me and inspired me to make a difference.