Senior Oration Finalist – Claire Nagy-Kato (’14)

We’re coming down to the wire and sharing the last of the Senior Oration finalists.  We hope you have been enjoying them.

Today we invite you to enjoy “Practice Makes Perspective” by Claire Nagy-Kato (’14).


In my early years at Wake, I was a screw-up. Well, I thought I was. I dozed off in classes. I joined over 20 clubs, and quit over 20 clubs. I missed countless meetings with professors and bosses. I broke plans with my textbooks to hang out with friends and I broke plans with friends to study. I became the master of procrastination. I enjoyed most of my academic courses, yet I received more F’s on tests than I can count on my two hands. A map of my brainwaves probably resembled a painting by Jackson Pollock. Not a small one, but a big one. Have you ever been to the Art Institute of Chicago? We’re talking a football field size work by Jackson Pollock. Yeah, that’s my brain.

I was surrounded by so many organized and driven people that when I revealed my flaws to them, they would look at me with dismay, and sympathy, sometimes even call me a quitter. I felt I had flaws that no Wake Forest student should have. And I hated that. I was asking myself, what is good about me? Why was I so unfocused? Why I could walk home with a smile on my face when I had an F in one hand, but a hummingbird in the other? I pulled many all-nighters for F’s. But then when I think about, what I thought was studying all night really comprised of a few hours of studying, and many more speculating with my friends about how a simple trip to CVS turned into a greater understanding of the inner connectivity of human life (that’s another speech). Unfortunately, I found that the word Failure often accompanied my priority for exploring the larger systemic forces in the universe. So freshman and sophomore year, I was convinced that the only way I could be a good student was to change my priorities. I had to focus more on my textbooks and less on my elemental curiosity.

Then something snapped. They were the sticks beneath my feet. I was in the woods again, except this time it was for my Evolution and Ecology class. Exploring dirt and trees for a grade? Inconceivable, I thought. This was my first hint that education that could be attained in and out of human-made walls. It didn’t hit me instantly, but slowly my perspective on knowledge didn’t feel so confined. With this new outlook, I was not a screw-up. I was curious. I had an imagination. Although many of my previous discoveries often distracted me from my schooling, I was educating myself. I was finding meaning in the existence of time, habits, words, and even creatures, even if it seemed downright mad to scoop up the tiniest bird in the world for a proper burial or find enlightenment in the magazine aisle of a CVS. I recognized for the first time that my tenacious curiosity was a personal strength that was equally important both inside and outside the classroom.

In the classroom, teachers say to their students, “you should not simply come to class and take notes; you should read the book before class, and be sure to check out the supplementary sources I posted on Sakai. Oh! And while you’re in the midst of your groaning, I want you to find real-world examples.” “There’s those words again,” I thought. “Real. World. Examples. I get it, it’s like how we use physics to build rollercoasters or math to calculate a tip at restaurants.”

Wow, I did not get it. My idea that divide exists between learning in the classroom and learning through living was at the root of my struggles in the majority of my life at Wake Forest. These professors were teaching us how to learn, how to be curious, not just in the classroom but in our lives. They were asking us to gain perspective on subject matter, and find that these lessons are prevalent in the real-world.

So after four years of contemplating and exploring Pro Humanitate, I learned that it means to search beyond the constructed subject matter presented to us in our courses. We develop a cognitive boundary, or bias, from our initial source of knowledge, often times it derives from our textbooks, friends, family, FOX news, some more unfortunate than others. I had developed a cognitive boundary about grades, and their abilities to measure intelligence, and this is what really constricted my flow of knowledge. As soon as I fully rejected this construction of how I should be learning, I flourished. I looked beyond my required readings and read counterarguments. I discussed with people who held different religious beliefs than I. I tried to harness the wisdom that lies within every crevice of life on earth. I found anything that we call matter and turned into a subject, and it’s no wonder grades couldn’t properly reflect that. Once we all begin to do this, none of us have to think we are screw-ups because we get F’s every now and then. We all provide our own gifts to Wake Forest, to the Winston-Salem community, and to the world. For me, Pro Humanitate is recognizing the symbiotic relationship we can form with each human being and all living things on the planet. Because that is what is good for humanity.

So how does one begin to live in tandem with Pro Humanitate? It starts with walking in someone’s shoes for a day. We’ve all heard that. Learn from another’s experiences before you make a judgment or decision. But why just walk? Why not run, skip, roller blade? What about the things that don’t move at all? And the things that don’t wear shoes? Me personally, I don’t really like shoes. Maybe that’s why I learn from trees and birds and bees before I make many of my decisions. We should look at all facets of life and life forms with a new lens, and do it not just “for a day”, but every single day.

Perspective is important, but the practice of perspective shows true growth. If we practice detaching ourselves from biases, nurtured values, our ideas of “normal” and “acceptable”, we can then connect one subject to another like Religion and Ecology, and also connect all of the human-based subjects with the remainder of the world’s greatest treasures. We can question the true efficiency of human-kind’s creations. How does modern medicine affect the ecosystems from which the plants derive? How does economics measure happiness? How does science measure spirituality? How does religion unite us all? What does the subject matter in our formal education teach us about the rest of the world? I found that teachers have wanted us to figure this out, but they also want us to find how the rest of the world holds the perspectives we need to truly understand our classroom education. Every place I go, from classroom to woods to the floor of a marketplace, I try to learn something, even if someone thinks I am a quitter. Even if someone calls me scatter-brained.  Even if I get one hundred more F’s in my life. I am a Jackson Pollock, except with a chemistry degree, and a ukulele.

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