Senior Oration: Jim Le ’15

We’re coming down to the wire with our Senior Oration feature.  These have been wonderful glimpses into the experiences, thoughts, challenges, and dreams of some of our students.  Today we have Breaking the Formula by Jim Le ’15.


It’s funny how sometimes stereotypes do fit. Vietnamese American families want their children to become either doctors, lawyers, or CEOs. As a first generation Vietnamese American, my family wanted me to go to either medical school, law school, or business school. Their thinking is that good grades lead to good schools, good schools to good jobs, good jobs to lots of money, and money to happiness. Seemed like a pretty straightforward formula to success. And boy do I know a thing or two about scientific formulas! My family told me that science and math were the keys to becoming a doctor. Through high school, my life orbited around the letter ‘A’. Extracurricular activities were important, not because I enjoyed every one of them, but because they built up my resume. I kept this ambitious mindset as I applied to colleges and I was excited when I got accepted to a top-30 ranked institution. Can you guess which one?

Going into college, I applied the same clear-cut formula. Go to class, pay attention, work comes first, and join any group that could help me get into medical school. Yet, by the end of my first semester, I was unhappy with what I saw in the mirror. My drive to success was tearing me apart. Although my grades were superb, neither the numbers on my transcript nor the titles on my resume reflected who I was. Wake Forest provided everything I could want in the classroom, but after the intense hours of lectures every day, I felt lost in the forest. School was draining my love of learning and I had cut out the parts of me that were not necessary for success. I became more like a robot than a person.

Returning to Wake for my spring semester, I began to question the formula. I dropped the organizations I was using only to boost my resume and took a leap of faith by going on the spring Wake Alternative Break to New Orleans. There, I shared in fellowship and the strenuous work of renovating homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. As the sweat and dust covered my face and my shoulders ached from painting the ceiling, I started to question myself, “I could be at home playing Halo 4 right now rather than suffer in this miserable humidity and heat.” Our group was invited one hot afternoon to attend a house opening ceremony for a family close to our work site. Standing in a crowd of strangers, I watched as a mother with a baby in arm and a toddler by her side cut the ceremonial red ribbon. Tears of joy streamed down her face as she took the first steps into her new home with family and friends. In that instant, I started to realize why community service was so important. Seeing the gratitude and happiness that my actions can bring to another human being was worth all the sweat and blood of volunteering. Whether or not this activity applied to getting into medical school, I did not care at the time. From that moment on I continued to volunteer on service trips and events ranging from within our own campus to New York City to Ben Tre, Vietnam.

As a science major, it is ironic that the performing arts would become my salvation. My mother has evidence of me as a toddler dancing and singing to Michael Jackson. In college, I rediscovered dance. Instead of becoming a robot, I learned to do the robot. I was popping and locking my way to class, from class, and sometimes even in class. Once I started dancing, I did not know how to stop. I could not get enough of the adrenaline rush in front of a screaming crowd nor the silliness, camaraderie, and love that I shared with my dance teams: Momentum Crew and Crunchy Beats. These groups have grown to become a part of my family at Wake. I found the same satisfaction in playing my ukulele, banjo, and guitar in a folk Americana band. Through both dance and music, I expressed myself in forms beyond words. This artistry was not a part of my four-year plan. “Amateur dancer and musician” does not improve a med school resume, but it brought out a side of me I did not know existed. For once in my life, I was not fulfilling the expectations of others, but satisfying my own aspirations.

As I grew to appreciate this part of myself, I began to wonder how my ability to moonwalk or play a riff on the banjo would help in medicine? Indeed, was becoming a doctor my own aspiration or was I fulfilling the expectations of others? Volunteering as a student EMT on the Wake Forest Emergency Response Team reminded me that the medical field was where I felt most confident and excited about helping others. This experience reaffirmed for me that good medicine heals all aspects of a human being.

To my fellow graduating seniors, please remember this observation. Wake Forest’s motto, Pro Humanitate, literally ‘for kindness’, ‘for humanity’, the motto urges us to strive to help others in any form we can. However, before we can be missionaries of Pro Humanitate we must take one important step. We must learn to accept and nurture who we are, because this awareness is the essence of everything we do. Our passions are essential to our being. To suppress our true selves is to deprive us of genuinely understanding, appreciating, and relating to each other. Only when we know who we truly are can we devote ourselves to the good of humanity.

Success in life should not be reduced to a formula. We cannot calculate every decision and result. There is no one set path. To my fellow graduating seniors, I hope that you all will remember as you are tested and judged in your future endeavors that you are worth more than your grades, or rank, or list of accomplishments. Formulas are designed for repetition and evaluation, but individuality cannot be replicated. Never lose sight of what makes you who you are, because that is what makes you beautiful, even when you are playing the banjo.


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