Today we continue our feature of Senior Orations. But before we do that, need to make mention of the fact that Spring Break is coming up, and as such there will be residence hall room inspections, as well as some general safety information for students. While each resident hall’s staff may send a slightly different version of an email with this information, here is one sample your students might see. Also, for any first-years (or any students) who need help understanding how to sign up for housing next year there are information sessions being held this week.
It’s September 2013, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, reading the following prompt from the Wake Forest University application:
In the classic historical novel The Sword and the Stone, Merlin tells the future King Arthur: “The best thing is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.” Later in the book he asks Arthur, “Have you learned anything?” to which Arthur replies, “I have learned and been happy.”
Imagine it is your college commencement day. What will have transpired across the past four years to make you feel learned and happy?
WHEW! Talk about a thought-provoking college admissions essay!
Did Wake Forest really expect us to know how the next four years of our lives would transpire?
Of course not, but I was a high school senior with Wake Forest at the top of my list.
And I had to—I just had to—figure it out.
So I did my research and memorized everything.
Memorized the history of our motto, “Pro Humanitate.”
Memorized statistics on the website about research and study-abroad opportunities.
Memorized each Wake Forest tradition.
And when I felt that I knew it all, I sat down to type my essay, anxious to share what I had learned—well, memorized—with the Office of Admissions.
However, it was neither my mention of how I would volunteer with Project Pumpkin nor my anticipated participation in the annual Lovefeast that gave me confidence about my chances at admission.
No, the thing that gave me confidence was written below the essay prompt in small print.
And that hint read:
You may wish to consult Wake Forest Provost Emeritus Edwin Wilson’s speech “The Essence of Wake Forest.”
So I read the transcript of the speech, and Dr. Wilson’s words grabbed me:
“My hope for each graduate of the Wake Forest of our future is that they, if asked the question on Commencement Day, “Do you think you have learned anything?,” will be able to say ‘I truly love what Wake Forest stands for. I have made friends, I have conducted myself with honor, I have learned, and I have been happy.’”
And I must admit that at the time I was drawn to these remarks for only one reason—they were the perfect words to conclude my essay. I confidently and proudly wrote:
“My experience as a Wake Forest student has exceeded even my lofty expectations. Dr. Edwin G. Wilson would be pleased to know that I have indeed learned and been happy.”
Now, when the Office of Admissions read my essay one of two things probably went through their heads.
One: This kid gets it. He did his homework and is familiar with our university. Let’s take him.
Or two: What a suck-up! We’ll take a chance on him anyway. Perhaps he’ll discover in his four years what Dr. Wilson really meant in his “Essence of Wake Forest.”
I’ll never know for sure, but I imagine the “what-a-suck-up-we’ll-take-a-chance-anyway” reaction was more likely.
Regardless, I’m truly thankful that Admissions took a chance on me, because today I’m here to tell you—four years later—what I’ve learned about the essence of the Wake Forest I’ve come to know and love.
And to my fellow members of the Wake Forest community—students, faculty, staff—I encourage you to also take this moment to reflect on your own unique discovery of the essence of Wake Forest, thinking about how you might answer the question Dr. Wilson posed to the class of 2018 four years ago.
Dr. Wilson’s first hope was that graduates come to know what Wake Forest stands for, which for me can be summed up in one word—opportunity.
Opportunity was following Dr. Tom Phillips’ advice to fulfill my Fine Arts Divisional in Venice, Italy.
Opportunity was traveling abroad to conduct research twice—in Nicaragua and Brazil.
Opportunity was visiting opposing schools to report on the football and basketball teams for the Old Gold & Black, despite having no plans to pursue journalism long-term.
Opportunity is my essence of Wake Forest because in my experience if there was something my peers wanted to do, support in the form of mentorship or funding was always available.
And opportunities have come in more personal forms as well, which leads me to Dr. Wilson’s second hope for graduates—a hope for friendship.
I will always cherish the friendships I’ve made with fellow students, expressed in a simple wave while passing on the Quad.
I will always cherish the friendships of those who have been with me since the beginning and those who have come along the way.
I will always cherish the friendships of my colleagues at the Old Gold & Black, where late production nights became the highlights of the week.
But Wake Forest is a community where friendships are not restricted to residence halls, classrooms, or student organizations.
Being a part of the Demon Deacon community means something even more.
Here’s what I mean.
I was a freshman when I took a job as a swim coach for an adult group practicing at Reynolds Pool. The group practiced at 5:30 a.m., three days a week, and consisted of about 25 members of the Winston-Salem community, two of whom you probably wouldn’t expect to befriend a then-18-year-old freshman—Dean Christy Buchanan and Vice President Penny Rue.
Coaching this pair of administrators meant critiquing their technique—and I mean critiquing their technique. It meant encouraging them—helping them improve their times in the water.
Experiencing the vulnerability of a pair of university administrators was refreshing. Refreshing because it taught me that at a place like Wake Forest, no member of the faculty, staff, or administration was out of reach for a given student.
If a Dean and a Vice President of the university would allow an 18-year-old freshman to coach them, then no individual on campus was too important for another.
As the pair took me under their wings I realized Wake Forest is a place where the mentor-mentee relationship can be reciprocal.
Just as I coached them in swimming, they became “coaches” for me in their own special way.
Dean Buchanan was my mentor when I spent a month researching a non-profit organization in Nicaragua. Dr. Rue found time to meet to discuss my own student life and the issues facing our campus community. Both genuinely cared about my growth as a student and as an individual here at Wake Forest.
In other words, they became true friends. And I know each of my fellow graduates could share their own unique accounts of how faculty and staff have mentored them, supported them, and befriended them.
As I return to the essay I submitted in 2013 …
I wrote then thinking I knew what my four years would be like.
I wrote quoting a man we call “Mr. Wake Forest” for one purpose—and one purpose alone. I wanted to impress an admissions committee.
But now that I know Dr. Wilson more personally, I must admit, I’m embarrassed. Embarrassed to confess I referenced his speech just to impress a group of people, just to try to put a winning end on my essay.
But as I stand here today, I’m proud to look Dr. Wilson in the eye and answer his question in my own words.
I truly love what Wake Forest stands for.
I truly love and value the friends I’ve made.
I’m truly proud I’ve conducted myself with honor.
I’ve definitely learned and grown and discovered.
And most of all, I’m grateful—grateful that I’ve been happy here, very, very, happy.
I hope you all can say the same.