by Kaitlyn Fox, 2023, Senior Colloquium Winner
Picture this: Students losing their voices at the last home game of the season, RAs protesting for COVID-safe housing policies, a sorority sister gazing into her boyfriend’s eyes at a date function, Polo Road filled with smoke from the fertilizer plant fire, a mother embracing her new graduate on Hearn Plaza, my roommates’ final bow on the Tedford stage… These are the moments that I will remember when I look back on my time at Wake Forest; not just because I lived them, but also because I captured them.
I started as a photographer in middle school when my parents let me use their camera on vacation. I spent all of my free time attending sporting events and school performances, thrilled to be a yearbook editor in 9th grade. Naturally, when I arrived at Wake Forest, The Howler was the first organization I joined and now I’m proud to serve as the Editor-in-Chief for my senior yearbook. Curating the year in one publication, my job is to figure out who we are and how our staff can represent the character of the graduating class. I’ve also filled eleven-hundred gigabytes of my hard drive with tens of thousands of photos capturing the spirit of campus these past four years.
While the photos make each yearbook unique, it’s the stories they tell that I love the most. Some of my favorite memories are sitting with my parents flipping through old photo albums and judging my Grandma’s beehive or later, my mom’s mullet. Hearing her talk about their hand-sewn, matching mother-daughter outfits and how important personal style was to my Grandma Janet makes the photos all the more meaningful. Just this past winter break, I cracked open my dad’s college yearbook and was mortified to find a shirtless pic of him and his best friend Billy running laps around the track. He loves that photo. Well, my mom got rid of her mullet, and the track got ripped out of the football stadium, but I’m grateful for those tangible reminders of how we have matured and evolved.
Recently, I’ve spent time with past editions of The Howler up in the yearbook office, reflecting on how Wake Forest has evolved since the first publication in 1903. I found poetry, short-lived clubs, and even photos of my professors from the time when they were students. But not everything was as pleasantly nostalgic. I also found distasteful party themes, blackface, hate speech, and more. ZSR Special Collections has cataloged the fact that almost half of Wake Forest yearbooks feature instances of Insensitive or Discriminatory Content, some as recent as 2007. Patterns of racism, sexual violence, and an abundance of hate appear again and again in our past and present. Wake Forest acknowledges its mistakes and past failures to fulfill our promise of Pro Humanitate; we recognize that there is still work ahead to effectively model good character for our students.
As we create the yearbook, we have a lot of power to shape the historical narrative. Often, I’m tempted to characterize our time positively. But, while I have built incredible relationships and learned much about myself and my discipline, there comes a time in every student’s life when college sucks. In reflecting on and documenting our time, I’m faced with the challenge of balancing these varied experiences to craft a cohesive and credible narrative for preservation in the 120th edition of The Howler yearbook. How do we chronicle our successes and shortcomings with sensitivity and attempt to tell the full story of an entire year in just 200 pages? Do we memorialize instances of cyberbullying? Do we include the DKE emails? Do we exclude Greek Life entirely? How do I keep our tenure-less advisor from losing her job without sacrificing my editorial vision and desire for honesty? What even is honesty? Who even cares about the yearbook? Well, me. And hopefully my kids. Someone’s future biographer. And whichever historian draws on The Howler as a primary source for analyzing life at Wake Forest in 2023.
It has been a privilege to view our campus through my camera lens, and my photos tell the story of a creative, loving, dynamic organism sprawling with intellectual thinkers and passionate changemakers. This side of Wake Forest is central to understanding who we are as a community. I am constantly impressed by my peers and reminded of our shared humanity whenever I get to witness a project or initiative they’ve poured their hearts and souls into. Wake Forest cares. We celebrate each other’s successes and console each other in times of failure or pain–of which we’ve had plenty. I’ve documented the COVID-19 pandemic which thrust us into uncertainty, threatened our safety and well-being, and sent me, for one, into a depression. Countless instances of sexual assault and racial violence have disrupted life for too many students across this campus. And yet we show up and rally for our friends, even when the administration hasn’t. I have witnessed the power of collective care, and how the compassion of a few people can sustain the many in need of it. That is the embodyiment of Pro Humanitate. These actions define who we are and who we will become. And I know our class has the potential to continue this Wake Forest tradition of service and care into our futures.
Working to document the past four years has prompted me to reflect on how we will be remembered, and who we will become. For better or for worse, institutions will disappoint us and, at times, college just sucks. I find comfort in knowing that the individuals–individuals who support, who care, who strive for change–make it bearable. They make me proud to be a part of this community. The mission of Pro Humanitate draws special people in, and Wake Forest shapes us into extraordinary individuals. We all wrote the admissions essays and completed our divisionals. Everyone has a superior resume thanks to the OPCD and is probably involved in just enough activities to demonstrate well-roundedness in interviews. Each and every one of us has the capacity to achieve greatness. My hope, however, is that we strive even more diligently to do good. Not do well, or “exceed expectations,” or be “a pleasure to have in class,” but to perform acts of kindness, to truly live in service of humanity, and to contribute to the greater good. As we create our legacy, we should aspire to live up to these values and learn from the mistakes we’ve made along the way. I hope that we continue to hold ourselves and our communities accountable to the values we came here to learn and live out. I hope that we will be remembered for what we accomplish that goes far beyond ourselves. At the very least, when my kids pull out The Howler, I hope I’ll be proud to sit and tell them about who we are at Wake Forest.
2023 Senior Colloquium Runners-Up & Honorable Mentions
Lillian Giles, Runner-Up, “Unsettled”
by Lillian Giles, 2023
I’ve been feeling unsettled lately. These past few years have been full of opportunities to confront critical issues in our society. For me personally, this confrontation is perhaps best illustrated by some experiences I have had abroad. I remember my senior year of high school. I was sitting on the orange and green couch that ran against the walls of my Moroccan host family’s living room. The distinct aroma of turmeric and cilantro wafted into the living room as my host mom heated up rfissa in the kitchen. I was helping Rim, my 10-year-old host sister, as she struggled with her French homework. Her success in French would likely determine her ability to get a good job in Morocco.
Fast forward to fall of 2022. I am studying in France. Like Morocco, I am welcomed by local people and become close with my host family. I talk with my host mom about the new restaurants she tries with her friends. My host dad talks to me about golf, a game he has taken up in retirement. I bring up my time spent in Morocco. My host mom says, “What you need to understand is that Moroccans are much nicer people in Morocco; in France, they are very rude and angry.” I am taken aback by this statement. Somehow, despite having spent substantial time in both Morocco and France, and having studied the history of French colonial domination which continues in a different form to this day, this expression of overt prejudice by someone I counted a friend is still jarring. I am unsettled.
The thing is, we don’t need to spend time abroad to see issues of historical discrimination. The borders of our own community, the Winston-Salem community, are separated by socio-economic dividing lines historically constructed to impoverish certain communities to the benefit of others. Wake Forest exists on one superficially comfortable side of this divide. Behind Wake’s walls lie manicured lawns, luxury vehicles, a 24/7 support staff, restaurants, and residence halls under constant renovation to maintain the comfort and the allure of an expensive upper-class education. On the other side of this economic dividing line lies an area that was deliberately redlined and continues to face massive social and economic disparities. We, Wake Forest, exist predominantly as a bubble, separated from the community that exists outside our walls. As an adherent of Pro Humanitate, this situation leaves me unsettled.
Many of us remember how last spring the Weaver fertilizer plant caught fire. The threat of an explosion made national news, with some outlets saying it had the potential to be the largest fertilizer explosion in U.S. history. People within a one-mile radius were urged to evacuate. What was our reaction as a Wake Forest community? We were certainly on the edge of this evacuation zone. The Wake Forest administration canceled classes in response to student, faculty, and parental concerns. Some students ordered Ubers to take them to hotels. Others headed to their family’s vacation homes. And what of the people living on the other side of this socially constructed dividing line? What were the options for those much closer to the fire and most at risk of peril should there be an explosion? Many of them were stuck. They did not have the resources to simply evacuate. In retrospect, did we as members of the Wake Forest community care for our neighbors as well as we could have? That is another question that leaves me unsettled.
Some might take issue with my characterization of our response. They could say that there were many within the Wake Forest community who were equally vulnerable. And that is the truth. This economic divide does not exist only outside the fences of Wake Forest. We have our own form of a dividing line running through our campus community. Take our university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March of 2020 during spring break, Wake Forest, like many other colleges and universities, shut down. All courses were moved online. Although the situation at-home and on-campus was difficult for all of us, the experience revealed the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on some in the Wake Forest community. Some of my friends went to the beach with their families. Another friend struggled to access Canvas because their wireless connection at home was so weak. One friend was given a separate quiet study space in their house. Another had to handle online classwork while helping to provide childcare because daycares were not open. And even though it was hard for everyone to be isolated, some of us could access mental health services, while others absorbed these difficult experiences without their usual on-campus support. The pandemic and all of its disparities have left me unsettled.
We came back to campus the next year and lived in our dorms with strict social distancing requirements. When I think of that year, I just remember sitting next to my roommate in Davis Residence Hall on Zoom every day. While it was an improvement that everyone was able to live on campus, evidence of the divide in our community persisted. As time went on, we came to see a burgeoning need and a severe shortage in mental health professionals, particularly on our campus. Students with more economic resources could seek mental health assistance elsewhere, while others were unable to find help. This instance is just one more example of how, even though we came back to campus, the long-standing disparities highlighted by the pandemic persisted. But to be clear, these chasms in the life of the student body were not created by COVID; the virus just shone a light on them. I am unsettled.
And yet there is reason for hope. We can see the many ways that Wake Forest and its students have taken initiative and sought to enact change in our community. Students lead and are involved in numerous campus organizations and events such as the Student Association for the Advancement of Refugees, Campus Kitchen, and Project Pumpkin that seek to improve both Wake Forest students and those in the broader Winston-Salem community. Wake Forest itself recently received a one million dollar Mellon Foundation grant to create a program to advance environmental justice in this community. This grant came as a result of the Weaver fire, which exposed the ongoing injustices existing in Winston-Salem.
These student organizations and the Mellon grant are confirmation that being unsettled is good. When we are made uncomfortable by the awareness of injustice, we are then able to enact positive change. The institution that reflects and perpetuates these injustices is the very same institution that gave me the opportunity to study abroad, to take classes on post-coloniality and civil rights, and to live in Washington, D.C. for a semester. It is the same institution that provided me with inspiring professors like Drs. Katy Harriger, Lina Benabdallah, and Ron and Alessandra Von Burg. It is the same institution that is educating me and others to wake up, to see, and to act. Wake Forest has helped me to become unsettled.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his book Between the World and Me, “You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.” Likewise, my hope for all of us is that our Wake Forest experience is helping us grow into consciousness, so that we might leave this place a great deal more unsettled and inspired than when we arrived.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. 2015.
Cameron Michles, Runner-Up, “Negative Space”
by Cameron Michles, 2023
We expect success to be tangible: a trophy we can put on our shelf to validate our past and lift up our future. Something to carry with us as we walk on in life. We desperately want success to be something because we spend so much of our lives trying to achieve it. It always feels better to win a ribbon than “bragging rights.”
While I think we’ve all come to terms with the fact that no one is handing out prizes along the way, we’ve had to adjust to the fact that we may be given other things. Sometimes it’s validation, sometimes critiques, sometimes it’s a success-shaped hole that makes us wonder what exactly we’re supposed to do next.
But when our moment comes, that’s all it really is—a moment. We barrel ahead and only look back if there’s something for us to overthink, to question, to criticize. There’s no time to “pass go” or collect $200. We’re on to the next thing, chasing the next perfect moment of achievement, or, sometimes, we stop and wonder what we’re chasing at all.
It was my perfect moment of achievement junior year that made me realize how vicious this cycle could really be. It was November, and I was sitting on my bathroom floor, staring at the wall, simultaneously feeling the most emotionally charged and the most mentally numb I’d ever been. And that day, I realized that instead of barreling through this moment of success, it had catapulted me into something I didn’t recognize at all and that I was completely unequipped to handle. I found myself alone, cradling this hollow achievement, forced to consider the question: What now?
The Big Moment was in the fall of my junior year when I directed a play here at Wake. Each year, a few hardcore theatre kids like myself apply in hopes to be chosen as the one student director for the season; and, in 2021, it was me. Now, I don’t expect that the challenge of directing a play to be an experience you all might relate to, but we can let it stand for whatever it is in your life that makes you both the most excited and the most exhausted that you’ve ever been. Whatever it is you fight for, dream of, wake up thinking about. And, for me, it was a chance that I had wanted for years.
I worked for around nine months on this play, pouring into it every ounce of creativity and decision-making capability I had. All of this time and effort, all of the relationships I built along the way, all of the budgeting, collaborating, learning that went into this would culminate in just three nights of performances. And on the fourth night, I would be home. The play would be over. And I would have nine months-worth of memories to roll around in my head as I wondered what to do with all this free time people rave about.
The empty space after completing something important is always sort of ominous. It’s a break in routine, an adjustment, and a time when you realize you’re doing more looking backward than looking forward. In the empty space after this play, I had a really hard time looking forward. Instead of running to the next thing, I became frozen in place, questioning whether this success had even existed at all. A play isn’t a painting you can hang on your wall when you’re done or a song you can listen to once it’s written. It’s a living experience, a string of moments suspended in time that is preserved in memory alone.
So, I found myself sitting on my bathroom floor, staring at the wall, asking myself if this thing I had made such a huge part of my life really meant anything. Did it matter at all? I felt guilty for having given it time at the expense of my other commitments. I felt embarrassed that it was such a big deal to me and that I had cried on opening night. I realized that I forcefully diminished the very thing I had fought to accomplish the minute it was done. And for what?
People talk about love and loss, how the more you love, the more you make yourself vulnerable to loss. I think the same is true for success. With great impact comes a crater: a looming “what now” that can either challenge us to push forward or pin our backs against the wall in fear. And it can do both. Or change over time. But the reality is, we’re collections of indentations, pictures made from the negative space of all that has impacted us, that sometimes knocks the wind out of us. And so I had to figure out how it was that I ended up stuck at the bottom of that crater, wondering if it was worth it at all.
And it was—of course it was! Looking back now, I would never forfeit having “the wonderful” in order to avoid missing “the wonderful” someday. Just like I wouldn’t take back my time at Wake even though it will hurt like hell when I’m gone.
We want success to be a tangible thing. A diploma to hang on our wall to remind ourselves, or prove to ourselves, that we did something great. But the reality is, sometimes the trophy we get is just a trophy-shaped bruise for us to tend to until it heals. We all have accomplished so much by just being here. We all have achieved successes that we can only feel in the craters. But the value of these achievements remains and reminds us to keep searching for impact, because some of the most beautiful pictures are formed by negative space.
Zacary Contreras, Honorable Mention, “What it means to Belong, to find Place…”
What it means to Belong, to find Place…
by Zacary Contreras, 2023
In her book, belonging: a culture of place, bell hooks writes “If one has chosen to live mindfully, then choosing a place to die is as vital as choosing where and how to live.” I read this book after taking African American fiction with Dr. Christopher Brown, a divisional I waited to take until my second-to-last semester of college. And while this timing was in part due to my horrible procrastination, I must say I couldn’t have taken it at a better time. As a senior who is about to venture off into “the real world,” I am grateful for opportunities which allow me to engage in critical self-reflection. In belonging, hooks describes how her upbringing in Kentucky has shaped her worldview and the way she is viewed by others. Her narrative lies at the intersection of larger concepts such as gender, politics, and class, but her story remains deeply personal. The works we discussed in Dr. Brown’s class, although fiction, were deeply personal discussions of the same concepts. Each reading pushed us to deepen our understanding of intersectionality.
After our last African American fiction class of the semester, I ran to ZSR and checked out five books by bell hooks. I wanted to continue the conversation we started in that class. When I reflect on the class now, some of the most thought provoking conversations I had actually happened outside of the classroom. My friend, who also happened to be in the class, would meet me in Tribble Courtyard after every session to discuss our thoughts further, both positive and negative. Many of our conversations stemmed from frustration with the direction of class discussion. However, through our frustration and our countless conversations, I began to realize the importance of personal narrative.
Being one of a few students of color in the classroom is a common experience at Wake. It’s safe to say I left many classes feeling frustrated, especially my politics courses. I was frustrated with my peers at times for their opinions and at myself. Being a POC in a predominantly white space is a unique experience, to say the least. In academic settings, we are often expected to be a (or even THE) representative of the entire racial or ethnic group we identify with. Speaking up sometimes feels like an obligation, while staying silent feels like a failure. If you have not personally experienced this feeling, trust me when I say it’s just, a lot. Oftenly, I reluctantly prepared to put myself and my personal identities on display for the sake of a teaching moment. Candidly, these expectations have been constant and consistent throughout college. I don’t talk about these experiences to garner pity or to give power to these moments; they are, however, a reality which many people may never live.
I was rather familiar with this experience. I grew up in a small, predominantly white, and affluent town which mirrored the population of Wake Forest. For this reason, I felt that I would be comfortable existing in a space which required my vulnerability. When I started college, I was able to continue on just as I had been. Yet, I quickly realized that continuing on this path was not only unsustainable, but also unfair to me. I remember staying up late, reading the “Early Life and Education” portion of famous people’s Wikipedia pages like they held the key to universal success. I meticulously laid out my path: if I take this class, I will get this internship and if I get this internship, I will get this job, and so on. I was so eager to get to the next step in life, even though the next step was not guaranteed nor was it genuinely driven by my own interests or passions. I was chasing after the next phase of my life, eagerly wanting to prove myself — to whom? I have come to realize that finding yourself is a prerequisite for finding your place. And living mindfully is so much more fulfilling than following a seemingly obligatory path, mindlessly.
During my time here, I’ve recognized which courses attract a more diverse group of students. Usually these are my sociology classes and other courses which are centered specifically around the study of race, ethnicity, or culture. During my sophomore year, I decided to take courses which challenged me both academically and personally. Typically, this decision resulted in taking one class per semester that was for personal enjoyment and growth or outside of my major, which at the time was only politics. I took my first sociology class with Dr. Brittany Battle, called Courts and Criminal Procedure in the Era of Mass Incarceration. I fell in love with sociology, declaring a minor that same semester. Dr. Battle encouraged me to major in the field, saying “we have fun over here.” While I believed her, it seems I wasn’t ready to commit until the fall semester of my senior year.
I chose to double major in sociology and politics because each field uniquely strengthens my ability to connect with others. The more I learned about political concepts and sociological theories, the better I could understand people who think, act, and look differently from me. As a queer student of color on substantial financial aid at a wealthy, predominantly white institution, I have spent years employing these skills to navigate college life and build community. These experiences have taught me that being part of a community is about building bridges across those differences, not merely about searching for similarities with one another. I am comforted by the fact that we, as humans, have the capability to build community, to craft a chosen family. Now, this observation is not to say that my major combination is superior because I found fulfillment in it. Frankly, the choice of any major itself is not what matters; what really matters is how you decide to use the lessons you’ve learned to positively impact the present moment, to live mindfully, and build community despite differences. My life motto — and I swear I can hear my friends groan in the distance every time I say it — is “you live and you learn, and I’m learning a lot.” I am excited to one day read the “Early Life and Education” sections of my Wake friends’ Wikipedia pages, which they no doubt will have. However, this time, my earlier feelings of envy will be replaced by feelings of admiration for my classmates: gratitude for sharing a moment of their personal narratives with them in this Forest we call home.
Oryann Addison, Honorable Mention, “The Journey to Your Purpose”
The Journey To Your Purpose
by Oryann Addison, 2023
Like most, I arrived at Wake Forest with big dreams. And some big doubts, but mostly, filled with excitement and curiosity. When you’re leaving for college, people say, “These are going to be the best 4 years of your life.” “You will make lifelong friends.” “Enjoy it because time will fly by.” I certainly hoped they were all going to be true.
I actually started at Wake 5 years ago – the 2018 incoming class. I committed to play soccer here when I was a junior in high school. My life was school and competitive soccer. I played all over the country and my goal was to play in the best conference AND get a Top 25 University education. It never occurred to me that I would have any other college experience other than this very specific one.
However, it did not turn out that way. In the Spring season of my freshman year, during a game against the NC Courage, I experienced my 3rd, and worst, traumatic brain injury. I was in the hospital, with a halo brace, and upon release, I was confined to a darkened room with no ability to turn the lights on or use electronics. My family was all the way across the country in California and I couldn’t go home. I was scared, and sad. I had severe memory loss and decreased brain processing. I had to go on a medical sabbatical and forced to retire from the sport I loved so much.
Returning to Wake in the fall, a semester behind everyone else and no longer a student athlete, I felt lost. When I was moving back on to campus, it dawned on me just how difficult these next 3 years might be. Where did I fit in? What would I become? This time, unlike the fall just one year before, I felt more scared than excited, more confused than sure.
Due to Wake’s smaller size, it is known for its athlete or Greek life population. I was neither. I needed to find a way to make things work, but I didn’t know how. Someone said to me “Sometimes when you are in a dark place, you think you have been buried but you have actually been planted.” To me, this means, the very things we think are hurting us may be equipping us to become the best, surely the strongest, versions of ourselves.
Over the next two years, what I found, slowly, was that while I was no longer an athlete, I could still be a vital part of the WF community. This was not easy – it did not play out like a movie; I didn’t get up one day with birds chirping and a new lease on life. I struggled with my mental health, I struggled adapting to having assisted learning plans and issues with my cognitive recall. Most of the time, I felt unrecognizable to myself. I got a job on campus – at the gym, and the following year RA’d for 2 years in the FR dorms. In my wildest dreams I would never have thought being an RA would help me find my footing. Helping my residents adjust, away from home for the first time, brought me a sense of comfort. We all have plans and dreams that change. My residents from my final year as an RA created a book, with individually written letters about how much I impacted their lives and how comfortable I made them here at Wake. This is one of my most cherished possessions; it showed me the impact I can have on others, and this motivated me to continue to find my purpose in this life that now looks so different.
I was also able to intern and participate on research teams. The size of our campus allows the development of close relationships with peers and faculty. As a Health and Exercise Science major, I was lucky enough to learn from some of the smartest and most dedicated faculty imaginable. Being in class with cohort of the same students semester to semester allowed me to build a wider circle of connections.
My junior year, I interned with the biomedical engineering program. The goal of the project was to assess brain impacts of youth football players at a local middle school using data driven mouthpieces. This process included assessing impact points and reviewing timestamped film to determine what drills or movements led to the most head impact on the children. (wow that was all a mouthful, wasn’t it!) We then gave the coach notes on how to alter these drills to lower impact and prevent head trauma. Without a doubt, it was m y own repeated head trauma that changed the trajectory of my life. It eliminated what I thought was my singular purpose and passion; It was during this research assignment that I finally felt I had come in to my own and it was a rewarding feeling to help prevent for others the fate I suffered. It was empowering to see the science we were studying in the classroom applied to improve contact sports for others out in the real world. Here I realized my passion for healthcare and children, confirming I want to go into pediatrics and hopefully be a part of a system that improves the way we prevent brain injuries. Thank you, to the HES department. You are the most personal, genuine faculty I have ever interacted with and made my academic experience incredible.
I am here today, and will be graduating from Wake, with so much more than my original dream. I am stronger, more resilient, sure of who I am, and open to new experiences. Now that my time is coming to a close, my insight to future students is that college will show you not only who you are but also prove to you just how much you are capable of. While there is a lot to learn in the classroom, the student experience at Wake in total is like one huge class about knowing yourself.
Each one of us is reflected in my story. Whether that is a student in the crowd or loved ones here to celebrate, or faculty hearing my experience. We’ve all had to change who we thought we were or what you thought were unalterable plans. I will leave you with a reflection that best illustrates my 5-year Wake Forest experience, written by Joseph Campbell, who observes, “We must be willing to let go of the life that we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
I am grateful to all who were a part of my struggles, my celebrations, and my overall journey getting to the life that was waiting for me. Thank you.
Rachel Edwards, Honorable Mention, “I Don’t Know You, But I Need You”
I Don’t Know You, But I Need You
by Rachel Edwards, 2023
I first heard the song “Cells Planets” by Chanticleer a month before I began applying to colleges, at the all-too-young age of 16. There is a repeated series of lines in the song that say, “I don’t know you, but I like you / I don’t know you, but I miss you / I don’t know you, but I need you,” with a particular emphasis on the needing. At the time, I could not put into words why these lyrics seemed so powerful to me. My experience at Wake Forest has lent me the words now.
I remember when I was growing up how often the word “character” was used by my teachers, the people on TV, and characters in books. This, that, and the other “builds character.” I always questioned what exactly this enigma of a word could mean given how many contexts it was used in. I happened to get a straightforward answer in my first year seminar, “Commencing Character: How Should We Live?” This class gave me the foundation upon which my understanding of how to live a good life—a life grounded in and driven by character—grew.
In one of the first days of my FYS, we discussed the concept of humanity—an appropriate conversation given Wake’s motto. For an intimidated first-year student, I thought, Okay, wait. This actually makes sense, and I put the discussion in my back pocket. A few days later, I sat down with my mentor, Ann Phelps, in her office. We hear about the “ups and downs” of college and life, and I came to her office in a moment that was unequivocally a “down.” Her words, “I’m just going to give you space to feel what you’re feeling,” have stuck with me since the moment she said them. That simple kindness and grace had a magnitude of effect on me. I finally knew why those lines in “Cells Planets” struck me so deeply. The “you” in the song is striking because it isn’t referencing any particular person; it reminds us to see the commonalities between every human, a thread that is almost intangible. There, in a strange office with someone I had only known for two weeks, I saw first-hand what the enigma of “character” truly looked like, and why our humanity was so essential to it. As the song reminded me, Ann really didn’t know me, but she extended her humanity to me. More so, she extended me the space to simply be in my own humanity.
Since that day three and a half years ago, I have continued to learn just how much our character is tied up in our humanity, the necessity of one another. I don’t know you, but I like you. I don’t know you, but I miss you. I don’t know you, but I need you. Even as a philosophy major, I’m not sure that the lessons of Aristotle, Plato, Kant, and the like can adequately capture that deep feeling of humanness. It is in practice that we sink into our character and our humanity, and I think of their intertwining often. I think of it when I sit down beside a stranger on the first day of class. I think of it when I see another injustice being shown on the news. I think of it when I am hours deep into a conversation with my best friend.
The common thread here is that we really don’t know so many people that step in and out of our lives. After all, my best friend was once a stranger, and I obviously don’t know most of my fellow students here. The thing is, though, I do know that I like them, miss them, and need them regardless. I like their humanness—the complexity of identities and life experiences that comprise them, no matter how different those things are from my own. I miss them when I don’t hear their perspective; when their voices aren’t uplifted, I am missing out on something powerful. And I need them because we do not flourish in isolation; the community we create is essential to our thriving. If we are to develop our character, whether that be growing more resilient, more just, more kind, and so forth, we must lay down our humanity at the feet of others and welcome theirs. It is in exchanges like the one I had with Ann my first year that this union of character and humanity comes forth. That single conversation helped to develop my character, as do more fleeting moments like my passing conversations with people in the Pit or throughout the halls of Tribble.
Now, I reflect on that day in my first year seminar when we talked about humanity, when I thought I was good to go. I have taken that discussion out of my back pocket many times since, learning over the years that our motto, Pro Humanitate, is more than just being “for humanity,” it really is being for each other—especially for the person you don’t know or are yet to know. If I have learned anything over countless hours of reading and studying virtue and character beyond my FYS, it is that we usually like to think of good, moral action in terms of other people. When we see one another for the humanness within each of us, we are better for it as we strive toward personal and communal flourishing. Not only are we motivated to act with good will toward each other when we take our shared humanity seriously, we are also better enabled to serve the people within the distinct communities we occupy. My point is that it is a reciprocated love and appreciation for humanity that allows us to act in the right ways, a love and appreciation that I have only grown in as I made my way through and past my first year in the Forest. All that said, the simple lesson I’m taking away as I prepare to leave this place is this: while I may not know you, I most certainly do need you.
Maddie Faria, Honorable Mention, “In Pursuit”
by Maddie Faria, 2023
In the fall of 2020, I was a sophomore at Wake Forest. I was enrolled in a course called The Pursuit of Perfection, taught by Michael Hyde. If you’re like my parents, or my pre-med friends, you’re asking: “What kind of class is that? How can perfection be taught?”
On a totally different note, I should also mention that I’m a Communication major. If you know me at all, you can guess my excitement for a class titled The Pursuit of Perfection. Like everyone else, I am riddled with flaws, but I have strived throughout my life to do things the right way. Always in pursuit.
In elementary school, I remember “doing the right thing” as being nice to the lonely kid next to me. In highschool, it becomes being a successful athlete while balancing school and college applications. Then in college, it evolves into striving for the perfect GPA, scoring the right internship, and finally landing the perfect job.
Above all: work hard, and work well. To me, that was what success looked like. Strive for success, and you will be rewarded.
The first day I sat in Professor Hyde’s class, eager to begin the educational study of perfection, we were set a task. Professor Hyde asked us to submit a video— a video that was perfect, and to prove it to our classmates. No further explanation was provided.
In the end, I defaulted on what I had convinced myself perfection was— working hard, working well, and being rewarded. I submitted a video of my highschool chamber choir performing a song at a state competition. We worked on this song for hours longer than the others. We practiced this song until we could sing it with our eyes closed. I think I could still sing that song backwards. Preparing this piece was the hardest I had ever worked. And we were rewarded: For the first time in over 20 years, our program won the competition.
I submitted the video of our performance as a testament to the effort we contributed in the pursuit of perfection. The performance was not perfect, but the pursuit was pure and genuine and true, and for that, the song was perfect to me. To engage in the pursuit, to sacrifice for it, to pour your heart into it— that was the beauty of striving for perfection.
Now, before you start to think this speech is entirely self-serving, this is the part where I became quite humbled.
In Professor Hyde’s class, we dove into the study of perfection from a communication perspective. If you can imagine it, there are hundreds of scholarly works dedicated to cracking perfection. Researchers have analyzed what motivates humans to pursue it, sweat for it, lose sleep over it— perfection can be turned upside down and inside out.
What we learned was that the motivation to pursue perfection is not always pure. The effects of any kind of pursuit can be painful and exhausting. We have all seen it before– this is no epiphany.
But surely, I thought, I was safe; I had pursued perfection in order to do things the right way, for the right reasons. As long as I was well-intentioned, hard working, and worked well, surely good things must come.
What I began to dislike was how perfection was measured in the people who pursue it, people like you and me. Professor Hyde introduced us to a line of thought developed in this field of study— that some people can become rotten with perfection.
Remember– COM class.
In all seriousness– the idea begins when a person expresses their identity through the pursuit of perfection. Their pursuit, regardless of the task involved, becomes what they define as joy.
Now I’m sure some of you are asking, as I did: “What’s wrong with passion? We are surely defined, in some part, by what we are passionate about.” I agree. The kind of drive found in those rotten with perfection can surely be mistaken for passion.
The poisonous element of this idea is the misplacement of one’s identity into the pursuit. Finishing one task, moving on to the next. Never being able to stop looking for the next, because there can’t not be a next. There has to be.
This is what it means to be rotten with perfection.
It felt like a slap in the face. All I had ever believed was that if I worked hard and got good grades, I would be successful. If I networked, edited my resume, and prepped for interviews, I would land a good internship, and the perfect job, and I would be happy. And I would move onto the next.
The reality, I learned, is this— the pursuit of perfection is not the promise of happiness. Not when your identity is the pursuit.
When this point finally sank in, I had long finished the course. I was a junior coming home from abroad and was experiencing my hardest semester yet. I worked really hard, and really well. But I was not rewarded. By May, my GPA fell, my internship applications were returned with rejections, and I was miserable.
All the while, I would still call the semester one of my best. I’ve found my closest friends at Wake Forest– people I will know and love for the rest of my life. That semester, we celebrated being together on campus again, made new friends, and played a lot of pickleball. I made lifelong memories.
And I was still miserable.
I was unable to cope with my academic shortcomings. I was irritable and constantly anxious. Worst of all, I was drowning in self-pity. I could not figure out how the pursuit of perfection had led me there.
The piece of wisdom that helped me through this came from the place most epiphanies come— a subtle, yet firm nudge from my mom. (No one is surprised here.) She sent me a book called Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston. On the front cover, I glimpsed the word “vulnerability” and viscerally recoiled. I mean, seriously?
I was deeply opposed to accepting the idea that vulnerability could be the key to overcoming my unhappiness and discontent. Even still, here’s what I’ve learned from Brown by trying to be a little more vulnerable every day.
Through her research, Brown identified the common feeling that wards off vulnerability: shame. When we are ashamed, we reject vulnerability in every form. Risking vulnerability seems like an impossibility when we feel exposed, devoid of the shell exterior that we wear to fend off failure or embarrassment.
When we refuse to accept grace for our shortcomings, failure is fatal. It kicks us down, holds us there, and convinces us that it is too hard to get back up. In the meantime, we try to repair our shell defenses and move on to the next pursuit.
We fail to recognize the people supporting us along the way.
We forget that doing the right thing used to mean being nice to the lonely kid next to us in the cafeteria.
Here’s the truth— vulnerability takes a lot of courage. It’s asking your professor for help or acknowledging that you could be more intentional. It’s pursuing your passions without seeking others’ validation or pursuing a diagnosis in the face of uncertainty.
It’s doing what you love in the pursuit of happiness, even if it means forgoing perfection. I learned that some of our greatest opportunities are found once the door to what we always wanted has closed. I learned that the more I leaned into the love of my friends and family, the less life-altering my GPA became.
We are wrong if we believe that without the pursuit, we are insignificant and small. You should still work hard, and work well.
But allow yourself to fail. Being open to vulnerability is what allows you to give yourself grace when you do, and move onto the next.
Because this next pursuit is all too exciting and well-earned to do anything but to embrace all that it entails.
Dana Johnson, Honorable Mention, “Inviting Passion to Challenge ‘Potential'””
Inviting Passion to Challenge ‘Potential’
by Dana Johnson, 2023
As it does most days, the smell of poisonous fumes drifts through my room. Daler Rowney oil thinner, I am uneasily aware, can cause brain injury, internal burns, and even chemical poisoning. My greatest passion is killing me–literally.
A quintessential artist at the core, my paint-smeared heart pumps pigments of vermilion through my blood. Over the years, painting has served as my solace.
Suddenly, as I apply a tedious stroke to bring my self-portrait into focus, squeak! My moment of concentration is interrupted. “Those fumes are going to kill you,” my father warns.
I first heard the words, “coal miner’s daughter” while watching Loretta Lynn’s iconic film. I never truly understood their significance until I held my father’s hand through multiple diagnoses, a result of working in the coal mines to create a better future for me. My father grew up in a coal camp, in a family of sixteen children living off $165 per month. His father died in the mines when my father was 14, leaving the family without income. He speaks about going to school barefoot in the summer and walking miles to school in the winter. Despite hardships, he excelled and graduated at the top of his class. Not only is he resilient, but he is also kind. He wrote checks to strangers to buy furniture and coal to heat their homes, despite his own struggles. During a devastating flood, he let 11 people move in with him.
As a first-generation college student, I feared the college admissions process because I could not afford tuition. When I was invited to interview for the Program for Leadership and Character, I was introduced to Wake Forest’s motto, Pro Humanitate, a call to cultivate the qualities of character needed to serve humanity. Over the last four years, I have explored how to fulfill this vision by considering fundamental questions of my own purpose: What elements constitute my self-definition? What attributes could I not imagine myself without? Which values and virtues are needed to flourish as individuals in community, and which practices enable us to cultivate these ideals? These questions prompted me to think critically about not only who I am, but who I want to become and how my education might foster my moral and intellectual development.
Throughout my time at Wake Forest, I’ve often stopped to remember my father’s life. When I turned eighteen, I cherished the award letter stating I would have the support needed to attend Wake Forest. When my father turned eighteen, he left home with $32 in his pocket. My father’s life of diligence and sacrifice has motivated me to make the most of every opportunity and has served as an ever-vibrant reminder of my own resilience and purpose.
My father taught me how to be a self-starter. My parents’ financial tribulations led me to start my own business at an early age. Struggling to balance part-time jobs with school and earning a paycheck made me a stronger, more capable person. My entrepreneurial endeavors allowed me to further my aspirations and shaped me into an interesting and interested person capable of determining my own path. Exploring my entrepreneurial skills further once seemed impossible. Yet with creativity, diligence, and a stubborn sense of determination, my dedication to create and explore continues to open grand doors of possibility.
It is healing to imagine that we are formed by our most difficult experiences. And it is invigorating to commit to that bolt of insight—to apply unbridled creativity and unbounded curiosity to achieve any goal. Consequently, I decided to pursue an unusual double major in business and studio art, inviting my passion to challenge my potential. When I started applying the learning strategies I gained from painting to how I operate in the context of business, my perspective shifted. Arranging a still-life setup for hours in the art studio taught me to keep pushing until I am confident in the result. Applying the techniques of sighting, proportion, and value analysis provided me the ability to see a situation from multiple points of view. Taking intellectual chances, both creative and analytical, across and between tried but true frameworks, allowed me to see the interconnectedness of problems, anticipate issues before they arise, and develop innovative solutions.
My professional experiences in private equity and venture capital not only crystallized my awareness of the need for design thinking and pattern recognition in business, but echoed what my father taught me: to live ethically and to lift up the voices that often go unheard. Through engaging with the Magnolia Scholars Program, the Women’s Center, Call to Conversation, and creating documentaries celebrating facilities employees on our campus, I discovered the key to creating results lies in fostering close relationships beyond our intermediate circles. As a URECA Arts and Humanities Research Fellow, I aimed to better understand how spaces in genres—across a range of media—provide openings for marginalized voices to tell their stories in meaningful ways. Small-group discussions taught me to approach complex issues with an ethical mindset, to embrace vulnerability, and to live the questions. As I come to the conclusion of my Wake Forest experience, I am overwhelmed with gratitude—for my mentors, exemplars, and peers whose core values and friendship continue to shape my character.
One of these mentors, my painting professor Page Laughlin, taught me that painting does not have to be ‘either/or,’ ‘on/off,’ ‘0/1.’” Many artists have spoken on the process of self development and, as a consequence, of becoming the topic or medium. It’s a bit the same for me. Over the years, I have learned to relax my form. A looser construction has allowed me to experiment with blurred lines and forms. I now notice striking subtleties in my painting. Is it the underlying form, the complementary red I’ve applied, or the weaving of colors in my palette? I realize there is no prescribed technique for color relationships. I revel in an ongoing interaction of adding and removing, saturating and desaturating, creating shadows and revealing highlights through structural form. It is finding a balance between deliberate success and natural, spontaneous success that is difficult. If I rely too much on pre-packed formulas, my work becomes contrived. The real value of a painting, I now realize, lies not in its techniques, but in the way each fluid piece fits together.
My father, noticing my concentration, offers his help as he always does.
“Don’t let your mind get in the way. Keep working, and you will know when it is right,” he says.
He was right. The best painting, and, in fact, the best life, is created from a free mind. Like life itself, there are stages of painting that demand technical knowledge and skill, requiring me to think through the process from beginning to end. However, what happens in between is uncontrollable and extraordinary. As I contemplate our Commencement, I remind myself to take a step back and study the moving pieces. In this process, it is almost as if I am switching between the roles of the creator and the critic interchangeably, evaluating my own progress as I create it.
My commitment to character development and intellectual curiosity has been something of a similar experiment. I’ve learned the value of putting fear and uncertainty to one side and weighing the possibility of larger, even deeper, comforts. These characteristics are valuable insofar as they represent larger ones: to understand others’ perspectives and overcome the outside world’s expectations; the better to rise above life’s perpetual hurdles.
As the years pass, I think back to my father’s story. I have the heart of a coal miner’s daughter. Gratitude allows us to walk purposefully toward the unwritten and to possess the courage, self-respect, and resilience needed to get there. It is important to remember that while a destination of serenity and competence seems appealing, to reach it with ease renders every aspect of life more mundane. As we graduate from this nurturing place, it is important to remember that overcoming the innumerable and inevitable challenges before us with strength makes hard-earned accomplishments memorable.
Just then, my father, who loathes the smell of my unfinished painting, rises to leave. “Don’t get frustrated,” he reiterates. “I know you will figure it out, but this place smells terrible.”
The next morning, I awake to the rising sun. Illuminated only by the dawn, a streak of light reflects off a novel object on the wall that was not visible in the prior darkness. As all seven senses merge with my lived experience, I realize my mother has framed my award letter. Turning my attention to my painting, I notice sunlight glinting off locks of golden hair, and… my father is right. It’s perfect as is.
Elizabeth MacDonald, Honorable Mention, “Life Lessons I Learned From Math and Stats”
Life Lessons I Learned from Math and Stats
by Elizabeth MacDonald, 2023
All the most significant life lessons I learned in my time at Wake Forest have a counterpart in mathematics and statistics. While I am sure that all of us in this space have been humbled a time or three by math, I want to share with you today some epiphanies I have encountered while working with delta-epsilon proofs and biased estimators.
Mathematics and statistics sure do enjoy small things: percentages, fractions, derivatives, et cetera. This affection for the miniscule was particularly apparent in my course on the sub-field of real analysis, the study of “real” numbers and functions. Many proofs required an argument that a function approached very, very, very close to a value, say two, for example. (Late at night, I recall feeling that the purpose of such a proof was approaching very close to pointless, but duty calls.) The space in between 1.999999999 and two is immensely important. At a certain point, one might ask, “what’s the difference between 1.999999999 and two”? Well, what’s the difference between this moment and the next moment? What I have learned is that both small numbers and small kindnesses make a difference: a held-open door, a candy bar when I really needed a pick-me-up, a hug from a friend. A gracious 10-second interaction led to more as the semesters passed here at Wake Forest; various brief moments of courage led me to begin and end romantic relationships—all which helped to shape me for the better. Little things make math work, and likewise they make life and humanity work, too. So, math and statistics are more than just thinking about the tiny details. They also help you to consider the bigger picture.
A concept introduced early in the statistics curriculum is how to fit a regression model to explain or predict an outcome based on previously collected data. Sometimes you add variables to your regression model, sometimes you make a transformation, stick in an interaction and your model still does not perfectly explain all the variation in the relationship between variables. Over my semesters of experience with model making, I’ve come to realize that a simple model that does a pretty darn good job is preferable to the “perfect” model that I have spent ages homing in on, just for the sake of a marginally better product. A similar principle can be applied to creating one’s life. It’s good to invest quality effort into your daily endeavors and plans. However, if you spend most of your time striving for the next improvement, you will have hardly any time left to appreciate what you have accomplished. Ever since coming to this realization, I have tried to find my life’s “best fit model” in a blending of my academic, personal, and professional goals. I’ve also found the value in taking a pause when my first thought is to race ahead.
When you’re a math student, you have a lot of problems. Problem sets. Project-level problems. Multi-step problems. In-class problems. Homework problems. You can see the point. Usually, I want nothing more than to just get my problems solved and turned in. I’m up against a deadline and have already fought through several other problems this week. One might think that the answer to this challenge is a long stretch of intense focus. Unfortunately, that has not often been the case for me. All the grinding tenacity and perseverance in the world has yet to help me find my missing negative signs or identify the calculus rule that I applied incorrectly or point out to me that two plus two is not at all equal to seven. Intentionally stepping away from this maelstrom of intensity has, though. Taking a nap. Going for a walk. Being reminded of this “power of tranquility” over and over has shown me important life lessons including that: one, I can trust myself to get it done; two, giving myself rest (and plenty of time) is key; and three, it’s okay to give up for now if I circle back eventually. In short, I have learned that pursuing success relentlessly does not mean working relentlessly on the same problem.
Thanks to my outstanding professors who have demonstrated the power of humility, humor, and helpfulness for all their students, I have learned how to use the tools of my major and how to value the smaller details while appreciating the big picture, to have self-confidence, and to allow myself to take breaks. I value all these lessons learned at Wake Forest; they have given me the first principles for building a post-graduate life well-lived.
Sebastian Pauli-Rivas, Honorable Mention, “You’ve Been Too Comfortable Lately”
You’ve Been Too Comfortable Lately
by Sebastian Pauli-Rivas, 2023
As an incoming freshman student in 2019, I knew that I would have to wrestle with the fact that maturing was going to be a lifelong process and that uncertainty would linger like a shadow. It is an inherent quality among most adolescents entering college to have the naive notion of assuming that everything in life will be cut out for them. As a Latino aspiring to a promising engineering education in a prestigious institution, a hopeful gut feeling stirred within me saying that this naive notion would dissolve and that I’d prove my shadow wrong. After boarding my flight, I remember fidgeting with my boarding pass, tightening my seat belt, pressing and locking my neck into the seat’s headrest, reassuring myself that, “I have the power to assert control over the life that I intend to live for years to come.” I did not know what event, class, club, professor, friend, or interaction would serve as the catalyst to burst the cultural bubble that we Puerto Ricans tend to envelop ourselves in. Whatever it is, it was my personal mission to find the right needle in the haystack through my college experiences at Wake Forest and burst this bubble of immaturity. However, I knew that my shadow of uncertainty would make this search for emotional maturity a challenging experience. In what I felt would be the definitive mental exercise of my life, I spent the 3 hours and 30 minutes it took to fly from Puerto Rico to Charlotte making mental notes of the milestones that I wanted to achieve during my undergraduate years.
As the flight shifted to a cruising altitude of 10,000 feet, the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean seemed to match my growing uncertainties. I sought any optimistic reassurances that would dispel the precarious nature of the shadow that’d been with me the whole flight over.
Living on an island that measures 100 miles by 35 miles, it seemed like everyone knew someone else from some third cousin or distant relative. It would be commonplace to see recent high school graduates back home staying within the confines of the island’s cultural bubble. Familiarity, belonging, and national pride all serve as understandable deterrents dissuading young students from exploring beyond the customs and traditions that have lived with them for nearly 20 years. As Hispanics, we tend to describe ourselves in the same way we express ourselves: What you see is what you get. In this hyperbolic fashion, we say what we think directly and are very obvious in public. We are not too fond of abstractions in our daily lives and use practicality as a mindful tool to go about our day. However, most importantly, family, and close ties with lifelong friends are the most important things for us. Reflecting on this fact, I saw myself wedged in a stalemate. I was trying to decipher whether staying back home in Puerto Rico to retain this kind of familiarity was worth risking the opportunity of a great education in place that frankly I knew would culturally challenge me.
Once I arrived at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, I got into the next available cab, sat in an uncomfortably formal manner, put my thinking cap on and began listing the tradeoffs of the possible experiences I would be going into during my first year at Wake Forest. Would I actually take advantage of this opportunity? Would I be able to meet the lifelong friends that are promised by people who have attended college? Would I actually enjoy my time with my engineering trajectory, or would it turn out to be a case of the infamous imposter syndrome? My shadow of uncertainty sat next to me for the 2-hour cab ride and its questions demanded my attention. Nevertheless, I would ignore its inquiries for the whole cab ride; I had finally arrived at the LJVM Coliseum. I shut the cab door on the shadow’s face and thought that I had bid it farewell.
One year into college, and the panorama that I had prepared myself for in the beginning of my freshman year was distorted. My grades could have been better, I was not feeling as outgoing as I usually felt, and I became overwhelmed by the number of challenges that would show up to my doorstep loud and uninvited. The pestering feeling of not having full control of what goes on in my life became a daily reminder of my worries. These are the same worries that I feared dissuaded so many Hispanics from leaving their families and home countries behind in search of greener pastures.
I feared many things: embracing uncertainty, losing some connection with my own cultural heritage, not taking full advantage of the opportunities that I strove for in my life. I found myself once again in the dreaded stalemate. Except this time there was not much use in “planning” my way out of the predicament I saw myself in.
While Hispanics don’t believe in abstractions very often in daily living, a fateful night gave me the opportunity to unwind and get off the student treadmill. This opportunity to relax came in the form of greasy comfort food, a movie about spies reversing entropy to prevent the onset of World War III, and a couple of friends who were bilingual and from different parts of the world. While initially hesitant to go out, a realization had devoured my hesitation: “You’ve been too comfortable lately.” The best decision I’ve taken at Wake Forest was to give myself the chance to set aside familiarities and find my sense of belonging through uncomfortable, random experiences. The occasion was distinct in that, with these friends, we found 2,000 reasons to talk about the most random nonsense that somehow made sense at the end of the night. In all the noise, I saw myself actively engaging in the learning process of other people’s familiarities, their backgrounds, personal plights, or even making the most mundane observations that would have us in stitches for whatever reason.
As life’s stalemates faded in the final months before graduation, my shadow of uncertainty slowly reintroduced itself back into my life after a long cab ride home. This time, however, I had finally learned to accept its presence. Now at this pivotal crossroad in life, I stand here today respecting my fortitudes, conceding my flaws, and slowly getting to know myself more every day. We in the class of 2023 are all acting upon with our aspirations. At this important life juncture, I only urge that you embrace your shadows and stalemates not with reproach, but with forward-looking affirmation and trust. Let your experiences at Wake Forest drive your pursuit of discomfort and, in that way, find comfort in the lessons that they will provide. That is what I have done, and it has brought me to the brink of my future with confidence in what is to come and with gratitude for all that Wake Forest has taught me.