During Family Weekend, I heard an extraordinary speech from Jim O’Connell (’13), our Student Trustee. I had met Jim earlier in the summer at a New Student Reception in Tampa, FL for incoming first-year students, and he was a terrific speaker. The Parent Programs office invited Jim to speak at the fall meeting of the Parents’ Council, which took place during Family Weekend. It was a wonderful reflection of his time at Wake Forest, which ended with a rousing standing ovation.
We thought that his speech might be of interest to all parents and families, and Jim has given us permission to reprint it here.
Thank you for having me here today. Before I get into the main portion of my talk, I’ll tell you a little bit about who I am and what I do on campus.
As mentioned before, my name is Jim O’Connell and I am a Political Science major from Tampa, Florida. I’m serving as this year’s Student Trustee. This means I sit on the Board, and as best I can, provide a representative voice of the student body.
I think the existence of the Student Trustee position speaks volumes in terms of how Wake Forest operates, the premium placed on the student voice, and the administration’s concern for the everyday affairs of Wake Forest undergraduates. Not every university welcomes a student perspective on to the Board. In fact, I think some institutions might view such a presence as a waste or a nuisance in some way.
But not Wake Forest. Wake Forest is a place where the student voice is valued. It’s a place where the free exchange of ideas is not just tolerated, but encouraged. It’s a place where faculty and administrators focus not only on what we’re doing right, but also, if not more so, on how we can improve. It’s this rich environment – that for the last three years – I’ve been lucky enough to call home. (Though for any of you who might know my mother, please don’t give me up that I call anywhere other than Tampa home!)
I’m sure many of you can identify with these feelings. But it’s the truth. About a month into my freshman year, I fell in love with Wake Forest. The classrooms, the chapel, the amazing traditions. And if I’ve learned anything in the past three years, it’s that you can in fact have two homes.
So today, I’ll talk about Wake Forest as a second home. I’ll talk about how I view this institution’s mission and about how your sons and daughters – my peers – interact with that mission on a daily basis.
I was jogging the other day and listening to NPR and a story on higher education came on. The interviewer and guest were going back and forth about the state of higher education in the United States, where we’re headed and how we’ll get there. And these folks weren’t as extreme as most radio commentators. They were engaging in a reasonable dialogue on statistics and trajectories and so on. But as they wrapped up, I felt the segment, in some way, missed the mark.
As I continued my run I said to myself ‘oh well’ and forgot about it. But later that day, I thought back to it and realized why it fell short.
The conversation – for all of its reasonability – was couched in the wrong terms. The interviewer and the guest spoke of higher education as a transaction. In this line of thinking, the university is a producer and the student is a consumer, and there are price points, opportunity costs and diminishing returns. Don’t get me wrong, I know these principles apply to universities. But focusing on such transactional terms, to the exclusion of the unquantifiable, is the wrong course.
Now as a student, I can say confidently – and I’m sure many of you will agree – that the true value of the university experience lies in these unquantifiable aspects. What do I mean by this? How should we define the unquantifiable? Well as the word itself suggests, certainly not with numbers. So if not numerically, perhaps we can look to some of the lessons we learn as undergraduates. And in doing so, begin to realize the real value of the university experience.
So in the remainder of my talk here, I’ll share three short lessons I’ve learned as a Wake Forest student. I’ve chosen these three not only because I personally find them meaningful, but also because I think they’re universal. That is, if we were to get a sample of seniors, I have a hunch that a good number would place at least one or two of these lessons in their own top rankings.
So lesson number one: I’ve learned that it’s not what you accomplish, it’s how you accomplish it. Better to try at something and fail with honor than to take a shortcut and suffer the tugging guilt of undeserved success. At Wake Forest, we’ve learned that life is not about taking that last stride over the finish line. Instead, it’s about falling down, and in the face of steeper hills and more daunting obstacles, standing back up, stronger, more honorable, more courageous.
Lesson number two: there is great value in teamwork and working together toward a common goal. A good analogy is cycling. You can pedal alone and really fly for a few miles, but after that, your legs tire and your mind grows weary. Cycling in teams though, you can do things like drafting, where one cyclist rides behind another to decrease wind resistance. And the riders take turns leading the pack. This allows for interdependent relationships between teammates.
No one person is bearing the brunt and no one person reaps all the benefits. Instead, the team bears the brunt and the team reaps the benefits. Wake Forest has taught me how to be an effective teammate, how to find inspiration in the success of peers, how to listen, and in this model, how to go far.
That leaves the third and final lesson. Throughout this talk, I’ve alluded to running, and races and finish lines in order to make some points. But all metaphors aside, Wake Forest has taught me that in life there is no finish line. Instead there are only checkpoints. High school graduation, university commencement, careers, marriage and so on. These serve as the timeless memories, the unforgettable checkpoints, in our journeys through life.
And when our journeys in this life end, there’s still no finish line, for our legacies live on. In the words, actions and loved ones we leave behind, our legacies live on. Wake Forest has taught me – as it has taught so many before – to embody kindness, courage and honor.
In so doing, we transcend the usual standards, dismiss the norms of races and finish lines, and instead protect what matters most – our legacies.