Senior Orations: Benjamin Magee

As we continue to feature the top finalists in the Senior Orations, today we hear from Benjamin Magee.


“Trail Blazing”   

My mother’s mother was a 4-foot, nine-inch woman with a towering personality.  Those who met her at the end of her life in the Baptist Retirement Home in Asheville would  been surprised to hear that this small woman with fair skin and a love of hymn singing grew  up in rural India. It was to India that her Baptist missionary grandparents and parents felt  called to serve. And it was in the Naga Hills in the far, northeast tip of India, outside Assam,  that my grandmother was born and where she spent the first eighteen years of her life.  

Her grandfather, William Witter, and his wife, literally blazed a trail into those  untouched, tribal Naga Hills. Despite the tribe’s reputation for head hunting, Witter chose to  head into those Hills and to devote the best years of his life to learning their language and putting it into writing so that he might translate the gospel for them and open a small school for the children.    

It was this powerful family history that prompted my own pilgrimage to this place.  With a Richter Research Grant, I retraced the steps of William Witter. I stayed with a host  family in the local tribe for two weeks during the summer. So many of members of that  community personally thanked me for what he had done so many years ago. I was a minor  celebrity there. However uncomfortable I was being thanked for deeds I myself had not done, I was delighted to be warmly welcomed into their community and experience a different way  of life.    

The other half of this story, the part that explains more about the research that got me  half way around the world, goes back to my first semester at Wake Forest.   

I sat where you sit today, four years ago as a freshman. I attended my first Founder’s  Day Convocation in order to be recognized as a part of my service-learning English class that  incorporated middle school tutoring at nearby North West Middle School into the curriculum.  What drew me towards that writing seminar was part of Dr. Anne Boyle’s syllabus that  appeared in the bulletin. It announced, “Henry Adams, great grandson and grandson of presidents described his Harvard education as — wasted. It had neither given him the intellectual nor the social capital to prepare him for the tumultuous changes of the twentieth century.” [1] Dr. Boyle focused on helping us figure out, as Adams did, ways to direct our own education.   

I may have only been a freshman, but I was smart enough to know that if Adams had  trouble providing a solution to the challenges of his time despite his rich legacy and  education, my much less known legacy that hailed from the rural mountains of North Carolina could not likely stand a chance at a different outcome. I knew I needed to find  creative ways to develop myself immediately.   

Fittingly, in my First Year Seminar, we studied the commonalities creative leaders  from different domains share that allowed them to be successful. We compared health scientists such as Jonas Salk, the creator of the polio vaccine, and writers, such Peter Drucker. An analogy Drucker famously used was that people either want their work to be built towards slaying the dragon (immediate problem solving), or figuring out how to avoid having to slay the dragon (future problem solving). [2]   

The following summer, while shadowing in UNC at Chapel Hill’s hospital as a part of  a pre-med scholars program, I realized that I wanted to figure out how to avoid slaying the  dragon, so to speak. I was more interested intellectually in finding a way to help prevent the healthcare problems of rural North Carolina, which I’d grown up seeing. This realization  prompted my attempt further direct my own education.

I took steps to direct my own education as best I could by creating an independent  study project. I continued the work that I had begun with Dr. Gladding’s course on creative  thinkers by researching my local community as a part of an impendent study course. I  interviewed many local health professionals, including the chair of the Center for Integrative  Medicine at Baptist Medical Center. Integrative medicine is a growing focus of medicine today as it seeks to unite the best practices of complementary medicine with conventional western care in order to better treat patients; often by paying attention to their quality of life while treating whatever illness.      

Dr. Kemper found she had to direct her education as a professional. She is regarded as  the worlds’ expert on Pediatric integrative medicine and has been interviewed by ABC news among other notable names. Her fame came from a book she published regarding ways parents could keep their kids healthy by natural means. For instance, she offers tested alternatives to try before having a child put on ADD medication, though she does by no means deter from using such medication if it is deemed necessary. Before she stopped working for a two years to write the  book, her mentor told her she was “throwing her potential away” She told me she did it anyways because she felt a strong sense that parents needed the info her book could provide.  She was unafraid to follow her passion for a greater good.   

You see what originally attracted me to Integrative medicine was its holistic view of the person and attention to quality of life when treating them. My mother passed away when I was 16 from breast cancer. That was ten years after her diagnosis and her treatment was a mixture of conventional care and surgery as well as alternative treatments and life style change. She opted out of chemotherapy partially because the statistics on its effectiveness were low. As a nurse she had the sense that the treatment in her case was not worth the loss of quality of life. While she represents another casualty to an awful disease, she also represents memories of  a happy childhood with her during those ten years of high quality of life. Any medicine that can give quality years of life to people, by making it part of the focus,  is something I know is worth exploring further to be made available to more people.   

And so in this pursuit to make integrative medicine more accessible eventually, I began wishing my future self could somehow magically come visit me and explain, like Adams had desired, what to focus my education on while I was still young in order to prepare to face the challenges of my time. I just wanted the answers. Though each of the creative individuals I studied shared a deep love and passion for his or her work. They had a vision of what could be.  During one of the longer meetings with my mentor, Dr. Sam Gladding, I began to see that it was not more knowledge I needed in my life but rather the courage to act on my conviction for what I already knew. I knew there was a need for better healthcare in my community and I sought to find my passion for the way I would contribute to serve that need.    

A lesson I took away from my time in India was that my great-great- grandfather was unafraid to blaze a trail and take a risk that led to a huge impact. You see at the core of what my great, great grandfather knew, it was the biblical principle that one must lose his life for a greater cause in order to find it. My family legacy was much more fearless than I had once realized. He truly was an independent thinker. From my great-great-grandfather’s example, I have developed more courage to blaze my own trail for my education and career aspirations that I believe in. Pursuing facets of the integrative medicine field are often met with opposition from medical convention. The opportunities and mentorship I have received at Wake Forest have given me the courage to use my independent mind to its fullest.   

Farther Along the Trail:   

As a part of my Richter research, I interviewed Indian doctors working in their unique  integrative medicine system and took away many lessons on healthcare. The research allowed  me to study the cutting edge field of integrative medicine as India is a world leader in the  collaborative aspect of different medical disciplines working together. I am currently  interning at a local integrative medical site and applying my education as a Health Policy and  Administration minor to learn how integrative medicine might be made affordable to typical incomes found in rural areas of the state. I am also interested in designing health systems that facilitate better behavior changes and thus exploring the field of behavioral economics when applied to health. Through these experiences, I am exploring dimensions of healthcare that are not totally understood but may provide promising solutions. While I cannot say if I will be able to handle the tumultuous challenges of this century’s health problems, I do believe my university is doing everything it can to give me the intellectual and social capital to provide creative solutions.   

Wake Forest has truly given me the opportunities to move beyond the mountains of Western NC, to see the world and healthcare through different perspectives in a different set of mountains. It was this experience of retracing the steps of my ancestors, visiting the rural mountains of India and connecting with my family legacy there, that is helping me blaze my own trail to carry the knowledge I have gained in those hills back to the mountains where I am from.   


Works Cited

1. Boyle, Anne, Dr. English 111: The Writing Seminar An Education in Writing: A Service

Learning Course. Fall 2011. Syllabus. Wake Forest University, Winston Salem, NC.

2. Drucker, Peter. “Career Moves for Ages 20 to 70.” Psychology Today Oct. 1968: n. pag.

Web. 10 Jan. 2013. <


3. “Wishful Thinking Quotes.” By Frederick Buechner. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.


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