by Bea Pearson, 2022, Senior Colloquium Winner
It takes one hundred and nine minutes to get from my parents’ house in the woods to the gates of my Forest. The windy road is not very scenic, it doesn’t feature an irresistible snack spot: its highways, backroads, and pit stops are all unremarkable. Yet here I am describing it. I have memorized the twists of the Bypass and the turn onto MLK Drive as not because of where I was coming from, but because I was headed home.
Don’t get me wrong, I cherish my two parents, three brothers, three sisters, and a partridge in a pear tree. My family and I have lived up and down the east coast, forwarding mail from Massachusetts, to Florida, to North Carolina, to New Jersey, and then all the way back again; my favorite memories come from those moments where we were in motion. But I never once imagined myself trading my northern lifestyle for a southern campus framed by Magnolia trees. My family was a tight-knit haven but by my senior year of high school I was yearning for stability. Well, the last four years of Wake have been anything but stable.
What surprised me, is what I would learn in this sea of unrest. For wide-eyed first year me, the calm before the storm went by the name BUILD. a pre-orientation program that was largely BIPOC students coming together to learn about leadership and diversity. We spent a few days munching on Moe’s, another few with local alum, and the last doing all sorts of leadership activities. But at the end of the week, we had a huge dinner for every pre-orientation student. Here, the contrast first came into view. My group was small and mostly comprised of Black students. But other groups like SPARK and Deacon Camp uh, let’s just say they literally paled in comparison; they dwarfed us in size and were largely white. Our eyes were settled on different goals, on different Wakes: while they practiced old traditions, we dreamed up new policies. Soon, this trend would continue.
So, on to first year and like probably everyone my age, I had the typical college experience of decimated friendships, unrequited crushes, and disappointing math grades. I remember getting lost on the way to my FYS tucked away in the maze-like halls of Tribble; I cried over chicken from the Grill station after I bungled my audition for an acapella group. But I experienced the atypical as well: I crowded into the all-too-small Black Student Alliance lounge to reel at the sight of Blackface photos. I choked back tears as I described the realities of campus racism to our then-college president. I was procrastinating in Benson when my friends and I received death threats from white supremacists online. Remember that contrast I noticed at pre orientation? Here it was again. Most of my peers were rushing Greek organizations or battling with Introduction to Accounting; But me? I was standing in front of hundreds, fervent, trying to name what Black and brown students, faculty, and staff needed to survive. So, in all of this instability and pressure, as I lost track of the normal, I found myself and I somehow found a home at Wake.
It is easy to see this as a list of stresses and breaking points, as something unique and terrible that I had to deal with. But it’s not. I know that every personal triumph made me stronger, every trial expanded my community, and that community deals with these trials every year. During that first year I met Dr. José Vialba, someone who is now a trusted mentor and friend; after the initial digital scare, I closed my computer and soon we were laughing and sipping on milkshakes, in staunch defiance of racist aims. I clung to campus. I spent hours in meetings arguing about policy; I spoke in front of hundreds about my yearning for better; I searched for and found allies in all of dissension. I was stretched by these moments and stretched into the outline of a strong person and proud demon deacon that I am today.
Often when I relay these stories I am met with discomfort or pitying eyes, but this isn’t a tale of how challenge dragged me down. In chaos and stress, I was built up. Over the next three years I remained uncomfortable. I squirmed as I sat on the President’s Commission for Race and Community; I fidgeted as I helped curate identity-focused programming in the women’s center; I shivered before taking the digital stage with famed friends of Maya Angelou. These moments weren’t about ease but growth. Wake Forest – all of us here – has been doing the same through pandemics, new presidents, and unprecedented change. We have been growing and it has not been easy. All around us, faculty are overhauling curriculum requirements, staff are drafting and redrafting policy, and students are asking for, no, demanding better. This work is exhausting and thankless at times, and as we reckon with our history we also look to an equitable future. In this, the lesson of embracing discomfort as we build a home like Wake is all the more applicable. I leaned into that sensation and its lessons because just like in my childhood, being uprooted allows you to flourish, to seize hold of new fertile ground. For those who also find themselves feeling uncomfortable, find power there–I did.
2022 Senior Colloquium Runners-Up & Honorable Mentions
Miranda Wells, Runner-Up, “Steps”
by Miranda Wells, 2022
I really hate stairs. I grew up with stairs in my house and absolutely despised when my mother would tell me to carry my laundry upstairs. Those steps felt entirely tedious and unnecessary. As a child, I thought that as I grew up and got “big and strong” the stairs would not feel like such a big task.
When my mother was diagnosed with a disabling chronic illness, I began to notice the toll that a few extra steps took on her. Throughout high school and early college I searched high and low for inaccessibility. My campus needs a wheelchair ramp here. This video needs subtitles. My friends would begin to roll their eyes when I pointed out how many buildings did not have elevators. During my freshman year of college I began to notice these barriers a little more intimately.
My wheezing and dizziness after walking to class and my inability to focus or speak clearly after going up a flight of stairs were bright red flags. A doctor’s visit and a blood pressure test revealed that my tachycardia after walking less than a mile was not due to being out of shape. Soon, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) became a defining part of my life.
Being diagnosed with the same condition as my mother shouldn’t have come as a surprise. For the previous seven years, I had obsessed over the symptoms, risk factors, statistics, and all that WebMD could tell me. Nonetheless, the diagnosis shook me to my core. Over the past two years I have gone through all five stages of grief and back again. I learned the extra care required to live in a body with POTS. I cycled through frustration when I would stutter through sentences. I felt embarrassment when my friends would have to wait for me to catch my breath when walking to dinner. There was loneliness too when my symptoms became so tiring I had to lay in bed in the middle of the day.
My depression shouldn’t have come as a surprise either. After taking multiple psychology and counseling classes, I became deeply fascinated with the human mind and its complexities. I obsessed over the symptoms, risk factors, and statistics and all that my professors could tell me for the past four years. Nonetheless, the diagnosis shook me to my core. Once again I started to relearn the extra care my body (and now my mind) required.
The two disorders became so entangled that I couldn’t determine which symptom belonged to what. Now every day became a flight of stairs I would have to climb and I once again wondered when I would get “big and strong” so that it did not seem like such a big task. Through encouragement from friends and family, I began counseling.
Through counseling I have started to work my way up those stairs with the laundry basket of my life on my hip. I have learned coping mechanisms. I restructured my thoughts. I did all the self-care. Despite all this work I had been doing, it did not change the fact that I have extra steps. Steps that my classmates and peers will never have to take. Obstacles that I had to overcome. I was determined to use these challenges as an opportunity to show my strength.
One of my favorite quotes has always been one by Eleanor Roosevelt: “A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she is in hot water.” As a young girl I used this quote as my mantra. I wanted the world to hit me with its best shot so I could show everyone how strong I was. I have recently started learning more about tea. I learned how to properly brew different varieties to bring out different flavors. Do you know what I learned? Different types of tea should be brewed at different temperatures. If you brew a green tea at the same temperature as an herbal tea, do you know what happens? It turns bitter. It is not that green tea is weaker than an herbal but rather it has found itself in an environment for which it was not intended.
I too grew bitter. I grew bitter toward this university for those inaccessibilities with which I became so intimately acquainted. I became bitter when I was denied more accessible parking. I became bitter when my course was moved to a classroom without elevator access. I became bitter when absences caused by my depression impacted my grades. The environment I found myself in, the one I chose specifically to push me so that I could show my strength, had made me bitter.
There has also been sweetness here. The moments spent with the lifelong friends I have made here. The journey of self-discovery and acceptance I have trekked here. The incredible education I have worked toward here. These moments were sweet, but improved accessibility on this campus would have made my experience here at Wake Forest University so much better.
Even so, the difficulties I faced, while frustrating and unfair, did help me to prove my strength. I showed myself that I am resilient. I will be graduating from a top university while simultaneously battling chronic and mental illness. While I still hold frustration about my experience on this campus, I hold even more pride in myself for overcoming those obstacles. However, for many students these obstacles are not ones they can surmount. They are not weaker than I am but the environment they have found themselves in has not allowed them to show their strength. To Wake Forest, I wish to say “Do better”. In order for this university to fully foster diversity, it must be accessible. Increase your accessibility and if you do not know how to, ask your students. We have a few ideas.
And to those that require extra care, I know there are so many of us carrying invisible burdens. So many of us must take extra steps that our peers will never know or understand. I am confident that one day you will look back and see all the resiliency, growth and strength you have always had. Remember that when you find yourself in hot water.
The moral of my story is that sometimes extra steps are awful. They can be unfair and unnecessary. You might spend the entire climb in frustration and even despair. Nonetheless, the beautiful thing about steps is that the hardest ones always leave you higher than you were before.
Betsy Lake, Runner-Up, “Wrestling With the Shame of Uncertainty”
Wrestling Wit the Shame of Uncertainty
by Betsy Lake, 2022
Wrestling with the Shame of Uncertainty
I am a double major in politics and philosophy.
Why can I never just leave it at that? I always have to follow it up with: “But don’t worry! I’m planning to go into law!” It is as if I am trying to reassure others – and myself – that these four years, my bachelor’s degree, my countless of hours of hard work, and my substantial student debt are all going to be worth it, that they are going to pay off.
But what does it even mean to have an education that pays off? Some might say a degree that pays off is one that provides a monetary return on the investment in education. That might be the Farrell Hall-endorsed answer, although that is just my guess. If you have seen me in Farrell, no, I am not a business major; I only sneak in there for the good study tables and the Einstein Bagels. This assertion is true, though, at least to a degree. I recognize that it is simply not an option for me and for most others to pursue our passions without regard for finances; I do need to make sure that I eventually use my degree to put food on the table. However, I want to believe that we are all here for reasons that extend beyond getting a mere financial return on investment.
Is it really reasonable to assume that, though? Believing in a greater purpose to education almost feels like believing in the Loch Ness Monster; even though you don’t know if it exists, and you’ve never seen it for yourself, you still just believe in it. Maybe it is irrational, but I want to believe and have to believe there is more to my education – and to life – than just getting a job that pays the bills and maybe even gets me a vacation home, if I am lucky.
Others might say that the experiences people have in college make the degree worthwhile. There is no doubt that I will walk away from Wake Forest with a vast collection of priceless memories, but no matter how many of those stories I recount, I doubt I will be able to fend off all the eye rolls and eyebrow raises from my extended family. I will concede that college does not merely serve the purpose of having fun and creating memories, even though it really feels like summer camp sometimes.
I also doubt I am the only person who has fallen prey to the unsolicited advice of this distant family friend or that ex-boyfriend’s parent. They may ask you what you want to do with your education out of politeness or maybe even genuine interest, but as we all know, the conversation inevitably turns into what they think you should do with your education. All you can do is smile and nod through it, and if you have enough of these conversations, you might even start to agree with them.
While I have attended a lot of these uninvited lectures, I am incredibly fortunate to have developed strong relationships with professors and mentors on campus to counteract those negative effects of outside opinions. Over this last year, I have sought out the advice of these people who I hold in the highest regard, hoping that they can just tell me the answer. I tell them, “Here are the things I am good at, the things I love to do, and some things that I really care about,” expecting them to respond with the perfect life path, tailor-made for me. While they provide a lot of helpful ideas and resources, frustratingly, they do not tell me exactly what I should do with my life. In these discussions, I have realized that no one – not even the smartest people I have ever met and who genuinely have my best interest in mind – can tell me the purpose that my education should serve. Unfortunately, I have to figure that out myself.
I have also come to realize the deep privilege I enjoy to even be able to think about education in this way. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to obtain a degree in higher education, to go to a school like this, to choose what to study, to have such amazing mentors, and to pick a career they want. To be able to look at education and vocation in any other light besides one of necessity is such a luxury, and I am so fortunate to even be able to do that.
These realizations during my time at Wake have forced me into serious introspection about what I want to do with my life, but they also sometimes seem to have led me into a sort of decision paralysis. I have spent so long telling myself and others that I will follow this particular path of going to law school right after college that, when I begin to doubt that path, I feel like a complete failure. Because I am not going straight to graduate school or Wall Street or Capitol Hill or the Peace Corps after I graduate, I must have done something wrong, I think to myself.
Deep down, I know that is not true, but the Wake Forest environment can make uncertainty feel like failure. I know I would rather take the time necessary to think deeply about my life path now rather than in ten years when I am well into a career I hate, but even rationalizing my situation like this does not diminish the shame that comes with uncertainty.
Searching for my purpose feels a lot like looking for the Loch Ness Monster. I finally dove into the water, and it sort of feels like I am drowning, but the thing that keeps me going is the hope that I might one day find it. I could choose to live my life on dry land, but if I did that, I fear I would always carry the regret with me that I never even tried to see what else was out there. Maybe I will drown trying to find what I am looking for, but truthfully, I would rather that than to leave my passions undiscovered and the things I care about untouched.
I am a soon-to-be graduated double major in politics and philosophy, and I am still figuring things out.
Mia Albery, Honorable Mention, “Lessons From a Chair”
Lessons From a Chair
by Mia Albery, 2022
Wake Forest University began to challenge me before I even set foot on the campus, sending me into a panic when I read the application question asking prospective students to write a “Top 10” list. With my next four years at stake, I struggled with the openness of what to write about, what they were looking for, what would set my application apart. Four years later, I think about this question much differently. The challenge of writing a Top 10 list now would be a wonderful opportunity to express myself and think creatively. However, that growth did not come immediately, and it was the challenges along the way that shaped my transformation.
The first of these obstacles arose in my freshman year engineering class, where I was tasked with building a chair entirely out of cardboard and tape, that could support the weight of a human. This assignment sticks out, in part because of how I still brag to my friends about the chair I built, but also because, in hindsight, the lessons I gained from building my chair are a microcosm of the defining lessons of my time at Wake Forest. Although I could certainly now complete a Top 10 list of Wake Forest lessons learned, I will give you a snapshot of my top three.
Most obviously, the key to a successful cardboard chair is its foundation. The base of the chair is critical, as that is what supports people. In college, we all have bad days, down times, and need the support of the community around us. Wake Forest has a foundation of genuinely wonderful people, who want to support and help other students; this foundation holds the school together. The community is made up of more than just my closest friends, it also is made up of peers who will help me understand something at 11pm, the night before a test, when I admittedly started studying too late. It is made up of someone who will stop to ask how you are doing, maybe after you got that test back and you are walking through the quad, visibly upset. More than anything, the foundation of Wake Forest is a community that teaches people it is okay to ask for help; when you do, you will be shown support by so many people you did not know cared about you so much. That same foundation also shapes students to then be that support for someone else.
Above the foundation, my chair was to be made of what I intended to be equilateral triangles. I quickly realized that I could not cut every single angle the exact same, and nor did they need to be. They even began to work better, and proved to be stronger, when they were not the same, as different areas of the chair required varying strength levels. In the same way, there is not a certain angle, or person, who embodies Wake Forest University. The campus is strongest because of the diversity of people that make up the student, staff, and faculty populations. Furthermore, different angles bring different perspectives. Every single class, campus activity, and organization is better for the diversity of background and thought that participants bring. There is a specific reason that not all classes at Wake Forest are strictly lectures. The professors recognize that the student body has the power to teach and inspire some of the lessons better than a PowerPoint might, because no two students are exactly alike.
One of the few requirements of the chair project was that it had to be transportable. You could not tape it down or make it such an odd size that it couldn’t be sat on. This requirement is analogous to the lessons learned at Wake Forest. Wake Forest classes demand a lot from their students. There are tight deadlines, hard tests, and long essays. What I failed to realize at first when I was going through each of these tasks was the intention behind them. It would have been much easier to tape my chair to a wall for support, or to have all open note tests. However, if that were the case, I never would have been able to take my lessons learned (or my chair) with me. They would’ve stayed fixed in place at Wake Forest, and I would be entering my next chapter with much less clarity. Beyond just learning how to take a double integral, which candidly I am not entirely confident I will use frequently, I am taking with me the classroom lessons of teamwork, collaboration, and perseverance, among many other immeasurable qualities. I have learned how to advocate for myself, whether that be in a class or with friends, and that is certainly one of the many lessons that I will need to bring with me wherever I go.
In all of this, the details of the assignment ultimately just challenged me with building a cardboard chair. However, it was much more than a challenge. It was an opportunity. An opportunity to work with new classmates, and push myself to think creatively. It was an opportunity to see things from multiple perspectives. It was one of the many Wake Forest moments that taught me to really take pride in what you are doing and what you’ve accomplished, even four years later.
Now, like many of my classmates, I face the challenge of what to do next. There is the challenge of where to live, how to meet new friends, and how to feel fulfilled in ways that college might have otherwise provided. But in each of those challenges, is again, an opportunity. I have the opportunity to move somewhere completely new, to meet people with entirely different backgrounds than my own, and to keep learning as I go. While it will be difficult, I take with me all the tools for finding success that Wake Forest has given me. This university has shown me not just how to build a solid chair but also a promising future.
Katherine Finch, Honorable Mention, “The Statue Underneath”
The Statue Underneath
by Katherine Finch, 2022
“It’s hard to say whether you will catch up.” These were the soul-destroying words a mentor of mine would often repeat to me in my early teens. My passion for ballet, in one person’s eyes, set me up for failure–at what I was unsure. I carried an overwhelming weight on my shoulders–a fear that I may not be capable enough, according to some measurement I did not yet understand, to contribute meaningful ideas to the world.
All of this changed when I met Associate Dean of Admissions Thomas Ray during my admissions interview at Wake Forest. The first question he asked me after I described my biggest challenge was, “If you could sit right across from President Trump in the oval office and propose one piece of legislation, what would it be?” Suddenly, gone was the bar against which I was previously measured. I realized that I could weaponize the challenges I had overcome in my life to make the world a better place for others. I needed nothing but a true understanding of my passions to lay the course for how I could be an effective activist.
During our convocation almost four years ago, the Class of 2022 was asked to write letters to our future selves at graduation. We looked at each other nervously as we scribbled on paper, feeling vulnerable in the eyes of our own future selves. For many of us, myself included, we could not even picture the person we would be at the end of the next four years. We knew we were here for a purpose–one that would entail a sense of self-discovery–yet the end result of who we might become was somewhat intangible.
As I reflect on that moment, I see us as blocks of marble. Having experienced some life, each block was a different size, possessing various dents in different places. Each day in this institution would chip away at our hard exterior, soon to reveal the statue underneath. According to my research, it would take a Greek sculptor roughly twelve months to produce one marble statue. Over the course of four years, we definitely had our work cut out for us. But, as I consider all of the inspiring people with whom I am so fortunate to be graduating, I know it was for a purpose–great things truly do take time.
Many of us began our courses in 2018 with trepidation. What would become of us? Of what would we would soon learn? However, in each of our classes, our professors wanted us to take our individually constructed ideas and opinions to form our own knowledge about the information presented to us. In my first Philosophy course, Professor Francisco Gallegos wanted me to consider, question, and challenge myself and my beliefs as shaped by the systems in which I had spent large portions of my life. In my writing seminar with Professor Marianne Erhardt, I was challenged to write draft after draft, boiling down my language until I was vulnerable enough to write exactly what I thought. I overcame the fear that my own thoughts, as shaped by my life experiences, might not deserve to be heard. In classes with Professor Jack Amoureux and Professor Win-Chiat Lee, I identified the cause to which I will be tied for the rest of my life: strengthening women around the world. They listened, they recognized when we were most fired up in class, and they allowed us to develop interests within each subject. They helped us find a role for those interests to evolve in our everyday lives.
All of this was possible for each of us due to two factors that are unique to the DNA of this institution: our strong relationships with the professors who inspire us and our existence within an institution that is dedicated to teaching us how to make a difference in this world. I have come to tell people outside of the Wake Forest community that this institution is best described by the following words stated by Mahatma Ghandi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Each of our professors shared the passions intertwined in their life’s work–otherwise known as the changes they are making in the world through their contributions. In a beautiful exchange, they helped us identify those same passions within ourselves as we prepared to embark on our own post-graduate journeys. Together, in trying times amidst global strife and polarization, we are tied and unified by our shared identity as change-makers. Change-making is the Wake Forest currency, compassion is our language, and empathy is the air we breathe.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to read Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead, in which she shares two truths about leadership and vulnerability that I have seen reflected within our striving for pro humanitate. First, she says, “vulnerability is having the courage to show up when you cannot control the outcome.” The students and faculty of this institution exist in and enforce an environment that uses open curiosity to make discoveries about the self and the outside world.
Second, she says, “leaders have to create and hold standards higher than what we experience.” As students, we leave this institution equipped to spread these standards wherever we may travel next. As first-years, we had the courage to be vulnerable. We showed up and participated over the past four years wholeheartedly, fully acknowledging in those letters we wrote to our future selves that we could not control the outcome of our time here. Over time, we learned that we could control how much of ourselves we put into this process.
We now know that the self and world-discovery we experienced here liberated parts of ourselves that were most desperate to act. We leave with the understanding that we will now help the world discover its most beautiful shape as our professors helped us discover for ourselves. It has been the greatest gift to listen and learn from my peers as we have evolved into increasingly aware and more striking versions of ourselves over these past four years. The gift of discovery that we both received and gave to each other here will, in turn, be the gift we give to the world.
Anna Kate Himes, Honorable Mention, “Taught To Lead: Empowering Women at Wake Forest”
Taught To Lead: Empowering Women at Wake Forest
by Anna Kate Himes, 2022
My second day at Wake was chaotic, to say the least. I thought I was adjusting to college life until I walked out of my advisor’s office and shattered my phone by dropping it in the Scales breezeway. Barely usable, I called my family crying on the swing that hangs in Davis field. Not a great start to the day. I made it through my First Year Seminar that morning with no issues but then, I had to make it to Wake Downtown in 30 minutes for my first Engineering class. As some of you might know, this is a completely feasible amount of time, but I was convinced that I would miss the shuttle and arrive late to class. So I ran, yes actually ran, to Benson circle and arrived hot, sweaty, and tired.
Riding along with a bus full of eager students, I began to get nervous about what the program would be like. I heard the horror stories about other engineering programs that were academically rigorous, cutthroat, and male-dominated. When I stepped into the auditorium, I was welcomed by my professors but I still felt a little out of place. But, as my professors began to introduce themselves to the class, I realized that the teaching team was primarily female. I also noted that even the head of the department was a female engineer.
I immediately felt more at home at Wake because of the representation of women across the discipline. I came into that class feeling frazzled and missing the comforts of my home, but left with the assurance that this program was different. Diversity of thought and representation was important, which is unprecedented in Engineering. I realized that there was the possibility that not only could I have a place at Wake Forest, but I had the potential to thrive under unique leadership.
The Engineering department was beyond what I could have imagined as that nervous freshman as I experienced the intentionality of each professor and the department. In my first few years, I was trusted to be on the student advisory committee, and even to help with student interviews of candidates to join the teaching staff. I had a front row seat to the growth of the department and helped identify ways to create a better experience for students. Dr. Pierrakos, who is the head of the department, would meet with students regularly to pause for reflection and welcomed any feedback from courses to the spaces we regularly used.
She is dedicated to the program beyond what is required of her and is able to be a strong force for change. Still, Dr. Pierrakos never ceases to ensure that conversation is facilitated to improve performance of the department. Her leadership is evident in the recent announcement that the department received ABET accreditation.
I have never considered myself to be a leader, but instead enjoy considering other people’s opinions and following their direction. My personality is laid back and I “go with the flow” to the point where my friends can become frustrated. Even my family agrees that I am indecisive. From what to eat for dinner to what to write this speech about, I struggle to make decisions and take the lead. My time under the leadership of my professors has led me to change. Not only do they make me feel confident to take on challenges and become an effective decision maker, but they also model servant leadership.
When we were sent home in the Spring of 2020, I was in the middle of a Control Systems and Instrumentation engineering course. This class was centered around hands-on labs that involved complicated circuits. During that time, we were conducting a project to create a system that could read a person’s echocardiogram, which measures the heart beat. My class was left with no tools to build these systems at home, but Professor Henslee remained agile. She was willing to go into the classroom and record her own and her children’s heartbeats so that we could still use our online tools to analyze them. This is just one example of how Professor Henslee took the initiative to ensure that we were not blocked by the ongoing pandemic from reaching our learning goals for the course.
At the end of the course, Professor Henslee hand wrote each student a letter thanking them for such a great semester and sent them to their respective homes. I could not believe that she was thanking us, when it was her flexibility and perseverance that made me feel connected to the course despite being hundreds of miles away. These instances show another glimpse into the leadership I encountered within the Engineering department, and I use her as a role model for how I strive to lead in a way that instills confidence in others. Her leadership is a unique blend of strength, conviction, and humility. She distinguishes herself by caring deeply and intentionally about her students.
The next semester, I was asked to be a teaching assistant for that same course. Since I had taken the class early, I was put in the peculiar position of being a TA for students my own age. Instead of shying away from the responsibility, I dove into my role because I felt comfortable with Professor Henslee. She creates an environment in which students feel safe to take risks and exceed expectations. I knew that she would let me take ownership of the grading, but was always there if I needed her. This opportunity allowed me to see how I could thrive in leadership positions, especially difficult ones where I was asked by my friends and peers to give them good grades (which I never fell for).
Maya Angelou once said, “A leader sees greatness in other people. He nor she can be much of a leader if all she sees is herself.” This summarizes the leadership that has been modeled for me at Wake Forest. My professors care first and foremost about the development of their students, professionally and personally. I look forward to seeing Wake Forest flourish under another strong female, Dr. Wente, and all she can do to make future deacs feel like they can be confident leaders.
Liat Klopouh, Honorable Mention, “Commencing Character”
by Liat Klopouh, 2022
The problem with good advice is that it often comes too late. That’s why, in hindsight, I realize what a blessing it was to have been put into my first-year seminar Commencing Character: How Should We Live. The course challenges students to engage with a selection of commencement speeches to think critically about who they are and what it means to live a life of virtue. As a freshman reading remarks traditionally given to seniors in graduating classes, here was an opportunity to get good advice right on time. To possess the moral of the story before it even begins. Beyond just humorous anecdotes and moving quotes, commencement addresses offer us perspective cultivated over years of experience, applicable not only to the scattered, still probably-naïve graduating student but also as it turns out, to the scattered, naïve college freshman as well.
Like most first-years, I stepped onto Wake’s campus in August 2018, ready to live out the quintessential college experience. Here I was, at my dream school, prepared to build friendships that last a lifetime and take advantage of my independence miles away from home. I was ready to explore every class, join every campus club, find my niche community here, create ridiculous stories to tell one day, be a part of every tradition, and above all, make Wake a home away from home.
But as is often the case, these expectations don’t play out as we hope in our first year of college. Friendships came and went; organizations rejected me. The pressure to succeed, jump through the next hurdle on the resume, and race to figure out what I want to do with my life often overwhelmed my capacity to enjoy classes in the present. A fear of closing off options for myself or straying from the status quo made me reluctant to step out of my comfort zone. That newfound independence I sought gradually seemed overrated. Loneliness often kicked in. Not to mention, the mold in my freshman dorm room only seemed to make everything worse. My first year of college was imperfect, and frankly, I couldn’t be more thankful that it was. Because as each expectation went unmet, I was forced to ask myself what’s really important in a college experience. And the more this question daunted me, the more solace I found in my first-year seminar, where in address after address, speakers seemed to value their college years for more than the capacity to fulfill those standard experiences. Indeed, very few of them found it significant enough to mention the major that helped them land their first job, the club they led, or the city they studied abroad in. Instead, they felt more compelled to talk about the messier parts of college: their setbacks and their failures. Those were the moments, I soon realized, which taught them lessons that would transcend the boundaries of college.
So, what is really important in a college experience? What is college for? I asked myself the question again as Covid cases surged during the spring of my sophomore year, and conversations of life and death permeated the discourse. I wondered whether I was really experiencing college when its essential elements—the campus, the classrooms, the people—were confined to a computer screen. No longer present as we knew them. The words “prestige,” “internships,” “graduate school,” “scholarship,” “football games,” and “Greek life,” all of which once meant something important, something consequential, floated around me rather worthlessly. We, university students, belonged to a world of people who had suddenly lost their way, left to wonder how to value experiences when they are no longer so stringently defined for us.
And yet, as we all soon came to realize, these are the times when universities are most needed. When the world is at a collective loss, liberal arts education steps up as a guide. It offers to prepare students not only for lives of thought and work but also for lives of civic engagement. To ensure that students have the skills and capacity to look, think, and act beyond self-interest— to be mindful of the greater good.
In one of the most brilliant commencement speeches ever written, David Foster Wallace said to the Kenyon class of 2005: “Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
Wallace here is endorsing the idea that a higher education doesn’t just throw knowledge at students but rather teaches them how to compose their thoughts and construct meaning from knowledge selectively. And as it turns out, Wake Forest is one of the few to get this right. Over the last four years, I’ve recognized that our school, beyond its many imperfections, values, above all, cultivating good character in students. The kind of character that directs us to think with empathy and see realities that we are unaccustomed to. This value was very much present in my first-year seminar and has colored the rest of the initiatives I’ve been a part of through Wake’s Leadership and Character program. It reigns over all of us every day through campus organizations and traditions that embody the spirit of pro humanitate; through liberal arts courses that teach us to stay critically aware of the hidden injustices in our institutions and to embrace people’s differences. Wake prioritizes the difficult over the simple; what we can do to serve our community, over what our community can do to serve us.
What is important in a college experience? With a bit of perspective over the last four years, I’d say simply, to make us good people—no matter the major or professional pursuits. To shape our values so that what we choose to prioritize, how we choose to compose our thoughts, and construct meaning from experience, is done with virtue and good morals. College is more than just a sequence of right moves; it’s more than the traditional roadmap you follow to get prestige. College is more than a seamless experience. Let it be messy, let it be hard, and let it be imperfect. It’ll give you a chance to understand what to prioritize and what to leave behind. It’ll give you a chance to be an upstanding, cognizant human being. It will give you an opportunity to learn lessons that will transcend university boundaries and serve you for years to come. This is just the place to do it.
Andrew Rust, Honorable Mention, “Rethinking Our Carrots and Sticks”
Rethinking Our Carrots and Sticks
by Andrew Rust, 2022
I genuinely enjoy the challenge of a jam-packed, busy day. Maybe I am not the only one out there who does, but I find a certain thrill in rushing from one thing to the next with no time to waste in between. Of course, I too enjoy the rewarding comfort of my bed after a day full of classes, meetings, sports practice, and homework. But as soon as I can finally power down and eventually fall asleep, one thing always happens: My alarm goes off, shooting me back onto the perpetual highway of another hectic day.
Whether or not you enjoy being a bit over-scheduled like me, I am sure we all can agree that a sense of productivity and getting things done is fulfilling. Over the years, I devised a strange accountability system with myself where every night before I go to bed, I plan out my next day on a 3 by 5 notecard that I would keep with me at all times. I treat that little ruled slip of paper as my personal boss, demanding all it can in a single day. And much like any effective boss, it uses both rewards and punishments to get the most items crossed off the list. For example, maybe after a tough exam I am awarded an extra coffee, or on the other hand, if I fall victim to procrastination, I’ll include a big plate of spinach with dinner. At one point or another, we have all played this game, tricking ourselves into doing things we lack the willpower to do at the time. I am probably not the only one who struggled to do much of anything after 6 hours of Zoom classes isolated in my childhood bedroom, hundreds of miles away from my college friends.
I always found intrinsic motivation to be an interesting universal concept. It reminds me of the metaphor of the carrot and the stick. Simply put, a carrot in front of a horse will motivate the horse to move forward. Similarly, a stick striking its backside will also move it forward.
Scientifically, it is called the theory of reinforcement, coined by behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. In essence, reward good behavior, expect more of it. Punish bad and expect less. Governments, teachers, and parents all use this tried-and-true tactic to get more of a certain desired behavior.
Unknowingly, I too had been using this strategy on myself for years. But I didn’t fully realize its flaws until I found myself in this cyclical pattern where, despite remaining productive in my day-to-day duties, I lacked any serious sense of fulfillment over time. The carrots and sticks I laid out for myself certainly helped to get items crossed off the list, but in turn seemed to strap proverbial blinders on my horse. I felt I was neglecting something more meaningful by just chasing tasks on a notecard. It may have taken a little too long to realize that I am, in fact, much different than a horse. We all are. We are complex beings with a diverse range of emotions, experiences, and imaginations that construct our psychologies quite differently. So how can we balance short-term motivation with our long-term goals?
In my search for answers, I read a book written by a behavioral economist: Daniel Pink. In his book Drive, he discusses three tenets of human motivation in the modern era that top organizations use to create an environment conducive to passion, fulfillment, and productivity. I found these ideas to be especially useful in describing motivation within my life, and I began to rethink my blind obedience to the slip of paper in my pocket.
First, we as humans are naturally motivated by a desire to work toward a greater cause. An impact beyond our individual scope, much like the Wake Forest motto: Pro Humanitate. I am proud to be a part of the second cohort of engineers here at Wake, and I think back to the many engineering projects I have worked on over the last four years. From designing an accessible water filter for those with limited access to clean drinking water all the way to meticulously mapping and predicting COVID-19 cases, each project I worked on was tied to some greater impact, far beyond myself. And as a result, I found even these tough engineering projects to be quite rewarding and an easy source of motivation for me, even on days I struggled crossing off anything on my list.
A second component of our intrinsic motivation is autonomy, or the opportunity to impart your own technique and style to a problem. One summer, I worked as an online instructor teaching children about computer programming. After a few weeks I saw the incredible impact potential that these courses had, but I also had no shortage of ideas on how to make them better. So just weeks later, I co-founded my own company that offered an untethered experience for kids to explore many different computer programs and develop those creative tech skills. Now, 16 months later, my startup company ByteSize Learning is a source of motivation for dozens of passionate children learning technology through their abundant creativity. I am sure we can all relate to times we felt we needed the space and power to do things our way.
Lastly, our motivation contains an innate pursuit toward excellence. In all of our everyday lives we seek feedback often and look for incremental improvements from day to day. For me, I think of the many hours I spent under the lights of the David F. Couch ballpark with my teammates. The passion on that diamond is palpable and we find any way possible to hone our skills by just an inch or so each day. As baseball is, after all, a game of inches.
As I reflect on both the shared and unique experiences between all my classmates and I, I notice a continuing shift in my personal relationship with internal motivation. I still swear by my notecards and would be quite lost without them. But I see the limitations of this system and have gotten better at seeing what lies beyond a single exam, practice, or jam-packed day. The enjoyment of a busy day comes not from a completed list, but rather the thought of each item as baby-steps in my own unique journey. A journey of discovering those greater passions and bigger impacts that these small actions can build to become. While I can look back on my time at Wake Forest and physically see the stacks and stacks of completed notecards, I’d rather look back to the many brilliant people who worked alongside me toward discovering and acting on those ultimate goals of higher purpose. So chase your carrots and mind your sticks, but don’t ignore that deeper yearning for something greater and remember you may need to take a step back to see all your steps forward.
Adarian Sneed, Honorable Mention, “Everything Changes, Nothing Remains the Same”
Everything Changes, Nothing Remains the Same
by Adarian Sneed, 2022
Change. My grandma used to say, everything changes, nothing remains the same. She would say this quite often, and it makes me think about the influence it had on my life. For many, change is a challenging thing. For college students, it is not only challenging but also inevitable. In order for me to be where I am today, a change had to be made. My family means everything to me. When I was a senior in high school I knew I wanted to branch out, but I also didn’t want to be too far away from my home either. Being from New Jersey, North Carolina was the perfect distance: Just a 2-hr plane ride away, but far enough to let me step into my independence. Even though I knew this was the right change, I was scared. Freshman year, I worried about moving into a new chapter of life with so many unknowns to face. Now today, being a senior in college, I’m ecstatic that I overcame the fear of change and went for it. Reflecting on this made me think about a better way to approach the fear of change. Change is bound to happen, and what it looks like is out of our control. So, if I have learned something over the past 4 years, it is not to be afraid of change. Instead, take it as it comes, because each and every change lends itself to the evolution of our lives.
Change is growth. I came to Wake Forest as a Presidential Scholar for Theatre. Over the years, I have noticed that my skills have changed as a performer. I have been singing since I was about 5 years old. For all my musicians and performers, I would be known as an alto, sometimes a tenor when they needed it. I’ve always felt that I could sing higher notes, but since I was capable of hitting those powerful lower notes, I stayed in that vocal range. It wasn’t until college that I began to explore my ability to sing in a higher register. My first voice teacher at Wake Forest was Professor Teresa Radomski. Following her, I studied with Professor Bryon Grohman and Professor Elizabeth Pacheco Rose. In addition to all these professors, I’ve also had support from my uncle, Al Sneed, ever since I was young. He opened my eyes to the magic of theater and still to this day helps me with my vocal training as well. Because of the collection of names that I have mentioned I am now hitting notes that I only dreamed were possible, but notes that Wake was able to make a reality for me. I will be honest with you though. Those first few lessons of my trying to hit high notes, I probably sounded like a struggling cat. As a vocalist and an artist, I was scared. I often wondered if I was truly capable. Should I just stop trying? Will I ever change? With time, patience, and my professors’ compassion, I did. Now I feel comfortable going to auditions and proudly letting them know I can sing soprano, alto, and tenor, if needed.
Change is painful. I’ve always enjoyed writing. Getting my thoughts together and then putting them into a collection of words that flow together almost like a song is a pretty great experience. Over the years, I’ve written many essays and stories for school. But no matter what the writing was for, the best part was when I finished. That’s when I would call my grandma and read her what I had written. My grandma, Mrs. Pearline M. Sneed was born in Lumberton, NC. She moved to New Jersey in the 70s and had three beautiful children. One of them who would grow to be the most beautiful and supportive mother in the world, my mother, Apryl Sneed. Together, they raised me. My grandma, who I call Eema, was my best friend. Ever since I was little we could laugh and talk for hours on end. Eema was the first person in her family to attend college. She was also a retired educator for many years. So she absolutely loved anything about education. Especially Wake Forest. She was so proud of me for going here and all the things that I accomplished. Last month, I told her I was nominated to write an essay. As always, she was so proud and would frequently check in on me to see if I was working on it. Unfortunately, she transitioned on December 26, 2021, the day after Christmas. I wrote this piece a week after her passing. And as I sat there finishing my last few words, I felt heavy. A change had occurred. I could not pick up the phone like usual and read to her my finished piece. That was hard. That change was painful. As I’ve stated, change is inevitable. It is bound to happen. But what I’ve learned is that change is what causes life to evolve. It may not feel the same, but it can still have qualities of what it once was. So, I write these words in her honor and read them to the heavens so she can still hear.
Change is growth. Change is painful. Change is today, yesterday, and tomorrow. During my time at college, I’ve gotten to know change so well that I gladly welcome it. I feel ready to navigate it, to love it, to hate it, to cherish it, and to grow from it. And after today, I hope you do too. Thank you.
Grace Williams, Honorable Mention, “The Middle Seat”
The Middle Seat
by Grace Williams, 2022
One of the worst feelings in the world is that moment you lock eyes with the Delta employee after placing your suitcase on the scale. Yes, of course, my bag is 12lbs overweight. Yes, I know I will be paying a ridiculous amount of money to ensure those extra 12lbs make it onto the plane. Then to make matters worse, they always ask when you plan on returning. The agent’s judgmental gaze at me for packing a 72lb bag just for a three-night trip is almost as terrifying as realizing you have a middle seat on the plane. Even if I am not assigned the middle seat, I am often asked to switch seats to allow couples or families to sit together. Always, and I mean always, I will say ‘yes of course’ and take the middle seat, sacrificing leg space and elbow real estate. The worst part of this generous act is having to share close quarters with not just one stranger but two. Until recently, I would try to block out the world by listening to music or playing on my phone from the moment I stepped on a plane.
Freshman year felt a lot like the boarding process. A group of strangers coming together forced to surrender personal space with emotions running high. My mom encouraged me to sign up for a pre-orientation program, and Wilderness to Wake seemed like a great idea. No shower or phone while spending every second with seven strangers, I mean, sounds like an ideal ‘O-week,’ right? I did not think through the part where I would be meeting my new roommate and her family for the first time in hiking boots and on day five without a shower. The beauty of random rooming is living and going through those first few months with someone you may not have picked for yourself initially. As she is still one of my best friends, I have seen the power of getting to know people in unforeseen circumstances. I’ve learned to take advantage of fate by learning and listening to the people who come into my life. By simply being more friendly and showing interest in others, we can all work toward a sense of togetherness. Saying yes to the middle seat shows my new-found willingness to embrace novel experiences and people as rewarding rather than an annoyance. Being surrounded by strangers can feel intimidating and uncomfortable, but even simple interactions can make someone feel heard and seen. You may never get the chance to learn someone’s story without overcoming that temporary uneasiness of introductions. Instead of scrolling through tik tok, I’ve been challenging myself to ask my neighbor how their day has been during those lulling minutes before takeoff. I promise you all that the satisfaction of human interaction suppresses the meaningless time spent on social media.
As a kid, my biggest fear with flying was boredom and limited snack options. I would bring every game I owned and enough snacks for the whole flight crew. Having options gave me comfort until I hit the age where my dad no longer carried my bag for me. With independence and responsibility, you learn what you actually need and to leave behind things weighing you down. The same idea applies to my time at Wake. I have become selective and intentional with how I spend my spare time, prioritizing the people and activities that uplift me. Setting boundaries and learning to say “no” help me to love and understand who I am and what I value. The pressure to attend social events and the fear of missing out slowly disappeared as I felt myself growing more and more confident. The people who genuinely care about me have respected my boundaries, showing me the kinds of friends I want to keep throughout my life. Your imperfections, flaws, and differences are the parts of you that make the world a better place. No one can tell you how to be you; everyone in this room brings something different to the table and nothing is more beautiful than a person who is not afraid to be themselves. Embracing, becoming, and being your true self is a moral duty we all have to ourselves AND our community.
The Wake Forest community has pushed me intellectually to unlearn specific fears by having open, honest, and sometimes challenging conversations. Professor Cohen normalized failure to our senior entrepreneurship class, a lesson I didn’t know I needed to learn before graduating. His belief that failing is an essential part of personal growth and success reshaped my perspective, creating a sense of confidence towards the looming ‘what’s next.’ Life after college will bring a new set of adjustments similar to those felt during freshman year. Humans have innate resistance to change, but the confidence and knowledge we’ve gained at Wake Forest has made the future more exciting and less scary. I will fail repeatedly, but that is okay and just something I will continue to navigate as part of the process. The friends I have made at Wake have shown me how to overcome failures through their overwhelming support. In the fall of Junior year, I searched for a summer internship. My roommates received many “zoom interview in 10, please be quiet” texts and would patiently listen and quiz me to help me prepare. After the many rejections, they’d often write a thoughtful note or leave some candy on my desk. They did not let me fail alone. They supported me without my asking, making it easier for me to be vulnerable and completely myself around them. Not only did they change my appreciation for friendship, but they also challenged me to become a better friend. Facing failures away from home while quarantining really expanded my independence and ability to cope with hurt and fear. My experience at Wake Forest has taught me that real friends show up on the good days and the bad days, and being open with others only strengthens human connections.
When the plane begins descending, I always notice some passengers holding their armrests extra tight while others calmly prepare for landing. Graduating from college and starting the next phase of life sparks similar emotions in everyone. It is ok to be scared. It is ok to feel anxious. And It is also ok to feel ready and calm. No matter where we land in life, we each share memories and lessons from Wake that prepared us for whatever is next. So, I challenge everyone to talk to new people, be open-minded to new friendships, and embrace failures as part of the process. Love yourself and those around you because the hardships the world hands us do not have to be faced alone. Thank you.