Senior Orations

Monica Giannone

Monica Giannone

Leaving for college was by far the scariest experience I had faced in my first 18 years on this planet. I was plunged into a world completely unfamiliar to me and learned firsthand that there is truth to the statement that we, as humans, fear the unknown.

It took me many months full of anxiety for the future and nostalgia for the past to realize that the unknown held great opportunity and great promise. I began to rethink the ways in which I reacted to my daily interactions.

For the first time I was surrounded by people who were different from me. Everyone I had known up until that time in my life was remarkably similar. We all lived in the same place, our parents read the same newspapers; we were brought up going to the same churches, synagogues and schools. Our schools had shaped the way we thought, processed and responded to information and even the way we expressed ourselves. I grew up in a place where even that which was different was familiar.

But at Wake, many things were different and very little was familiar. I was dumbfounded by the boy in my English class whose Southern accent I literally could not understand. I was embarrassed by the fact that I had never eaten a biscuit … or fried chicken.

As a freshman so completely overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of even the most unobtrusive differences, I would have never guessed the passion that I found for a study into that which was probably the most foreign to me: the land, politics, language and religion of the Middle East.

Now, four years later, I have realized that overcoming this “fear of the unknown” that I experienced for the first time on campus has come to shape my academic and scholarly pursuits. My professors, colleagues and friends have challenged me not to fear that which we do not understand, but instead to strive toward discovering the truth behind the foreign. It is with this goal in mind that Wake has helped me open my mind to a new learning approach, specifically within international studies.

As a political science major, I yearn to understand the political philosophies and theories that govern the world in which we live. We can define governing systems, wrap our minds around them, and compare and contrast them to that with which we are familiar.

But what about when political discussions end and we are still truly unable to understand and to explain our neighbors, our allies, and especially our enemies? When I reached this point in my academic studies, my professors helped me realize I had been focusing too narrowly. I had neglected the religion, culture and language behind the political systems that I had desperately tried to comprehend.

Within the restricted scope of my studies I had neglected to embrace fully the unknown, and my understanding was suffering. I realized that if we are unable to understand and respect our differences, how can amicable relationships flourish? This is the question we must ask ourselves not only politically but also on the personal level. This is the question that has directed my studies while in college.

Just as I was a scared freshman surrounded by influences and opinions with which I was not familiar, so too are we, as Americans, surrounded by influences that we cannot fully understand, whose subtle impact we often do not realize. The Council on American-Islamic Relations criticized the popular show “24”, now in its eighth season, for depicting Arabs as terrorists and suggesting that it is “OK to harm and discriminate against Muslims.”

Three of the top five most commonly reported news stories in 2009 were about Iran, Afghanistan and U.S. terrorism policies. As Americans, when we look beyond what is familiar, or the politically domestic, it is impossible to be comforted by the unknown. We see war, destruction, terrorism and hate and all too often conflate it with a people and a religion that are, for many of us, foreign.

In an article discussing the rate at which abuses against Muslims increased in the months after September 11th, Psychology Today states that “despite our better nature, it seems, fear of foreigners or other strange-seeming people comes out when we are under stress. That fear, known as xenophobia, seems almost hardwired into the human psyche.”

Unfortunately, I agree with Psychology Today’s findings that this fear of what we do not understand, fear of the other, fear of the unknown seems to be “almost hardwired” into our being. Not only is it possible that this fear might be an innate emotion, but it is also strengthened in countless ways just through our daily existence as Americans.

Whether we are trying to stay current events savvy by reading the newspaper or relaxing at night by watching a favorite TV show, we are surrounded by subtle reminders of dangers that we do not understand. This fear is a natural reaction, but Wake has taught me that we, as intelligent, independent thinkers, can do more. Researching the topics with which we are most uncertain is the necessary first step to creating a better tomorrow, and a duty that we, as scholars, have.

As my academic exploration into the world of the unknown increased, I began to understand even more how Pro Humanitate has truly shaped the scholar and person that I have become. I now study the religion and religious processes and procedures that have such a large impact on the political systems of the Middle East, not just because I find it fascinating, but because by delving into the unknown and conquering our fear, I work “for humanity.”

I do not believe that all of the answers to our problems, politically or not, come from understanding one another. Nor do I believe that knowledge will, or should, erase all concern. But unlike ungrounded concern, understanding that which we fear is a productive pursuit. It helps us work towards solutions for the problems of today; solutions that we can use as a starting point for a newer and brighter future.

Marie Curie once said that “now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Four years ago, I was afraid. In the same way Wake Forest has pushed me to face my fears through understanding, I challenge you all, or like the boy in my English class that I once could not understand said “y’all,” to face your fears, understand them and learn from them.

I want to end by saying thank you. Thank you to this university, to my professors, colleagues and friends. Thank you for thrusting me into the unknown; pushing me to take, as Robert Frost once famously said, “the road less traveled;” it really has made all the difference.

Monica Giannone is a political science and religion double major from Madison, N.J.


Kate Miners

Kate Miners

As a child my mother always used to say to me, “Never take the easy road.” I remember thinking, “Why not? Surely the easy road is the way to go. Why would anyone make things more difficult than they could be? What is the point in that?” Now, as a soon-to-be graduate from Wake Forest University, I can safely say my opinion has changed.

When I was 16, I decided that instead of following all my friends, I would move to a different part of the country to attend boarding school for two years. I already knew that theatre was a big part of my life and moving schools would give me the opportunity to study it as well as take the subjects I wanted, and explore the love I had of the arts.

However, when I arrived I realized that I knew no one there. They were from a different background, had different accents, and I stood out. I will admit that, for a while, I was very unhappy. but now and even then I would not change the decision that led me there. It was that leap of faith that took me out of the small town I lived in, out of the school I had attended for 12 years, and provided me with opportunities that I would have never had otherwise.

Boarding school was the place I learned that sometimes it is harder to be yourself than someone else, but you should never compromise who you are. It also gave me the confidence to take my next big step.

In my final year of school, as everyone does, I applied to university. I wrote my applications to study Theatre and English at various prestigious universities. I was accepted into several and deferred my entry because I had decided to take a gap year in Ghana.

My months there were among the most rewarding, enlightening and difficult months of my life so far. I taught classes of over 60 students in classrooms not big enough for 20. I saw children beaten with canes because their parents hadn’t paid a bill. But, I also taught a child to read, proved a teacher wrong when he said his students couldn’t learn, and taught my students discipline without pain. I learned some of the languages, watched as my theatre class wrote and performed their own play, and even swam in a waterfall in the forest.

At many points along the way, living at home would have been a lot easier, but when I think of everything I would have missed I realize that without these decisions I would not be the same person I am today. I also realized that each of them had enabled another difficult but life-changing event. Without boarding school, I would have never traveled to Ghana, and without Ghana I would have never applied to Wake Forest.

Attending university is a big move for anyone to make and deciding where to go is a long and agonizing process. But I, along with a small percentage of the student body here, had an added difficulty in their choice to attend this university. As I mentioned earlier, I had places at universities that I had applied to before I left high school. But while preparing to go to Ghana, I realized that none of those universities provided what I was looking for. I wanted to take all kinds of classes, not just classes in my major. I wanted to explore new activities and interests.

So in the months between graduating high school and moving to Ghana, I decided I was prepared to leave my home and my family and friends in England and apply to universities in America. Along with the normal difficulties of deciding where to apply, I also had some catching up to do: writing completely different applications, taking the SAT, which I hadn’t even heard of before, and booking flights to visit campuses. After looking around several universities, I was persuaded by a family friend, an alumna of Wake Forest, to come to the campus. It wasn’t an open day, I didn’t take an official tour and many of the buildings were closed, but I fell in love and decided that Wake Forest would be the one and only application I would submit. Fortunately, and much to my parents’ relief, I was accepted and then began the walk along the next section of the “hard” road.

I think most of the population of Wake Forest University, faculty and students alike, will agree that choosing to attend this institution could certainly not be considered to be taking the easy road. My first semester freshmen year I took 18 and a half hours of classes. I found myself overloaded with books, taking subjects I thought I had left behind me in my sophomore year of high school, like physics and geometry, and with all the extracurricular activities I had signed up for, on most days, I wouldn’t make it to my bed until the early hours of the morning. On top of all this I was 5,000 miles away from almost everyone I had ever known and separated from my country by an ocean.

I had left my home behind and suddenly no one knew who I was. And especially with regards to theatre, I went from big fish, small pond, to what felt like tiny fish in an ocean, (where the bigger fish all had strange accents). Up until freshman year I had always been cast in plays and had been in every show that my high school had ever produced while I was there. Now I wasn’t getting cast in anything, I had absolutely no idea how to deal with it. At the time I lost all faith in my ability and considered never auditioning for anything ever again. But what better way to test what you claim to be passionate about than to keep you away from it. I couldn’t act in plays so instead I worked on them. I took every backstage, behind-the-scenes job and worked on every single play produced during my freshmen year.

All these obstacles tested the faith I had in myself and my craft. Without these challenges, I would have never gained the experience that I did during those months of not being cast, and not being seen. I would have never realized that I truly adore every aspect of theatre or discovered my love of designing. I also would have never learned how to cope with rejection and how to become stronger as a result.

During my four years at Wake I have grown from a teenager into an adult. I have learned what it means to be tested, and what it means to be truly alone and what loss is. I have learned what it means to be kept away from something you love and what it feels like to not be good enough. I have struggled but through that I have learned how to fight. I learned to fight for what I believe in, and against what I know is wrong, I have gained independence, faith and heart.

Looking back I know, once again, that I would not have changed my decision for anything. Life at Wake, for me, was difficult, at times, but I realize now that I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, and I am graduating as a person I am proud to be.

I truly believe that without difficulty we can never know who we are or what we are capable of. We cannot truly appreciate beauty and light if we have not lived at least one moment in the dark. If we are never tested then we will never realize our true strength.

So what I can say is that Wake has confirmed a life belief of mine. Life is difficult and confusing. It’s hard work and although it often doesn’t seem worth it, it always is.

It has been said many times but I will say it again. Nothing worth having comes easy, anything worth having is worth fighting for, and you will have to.

In life we reach crossroads every day. The easy road may be as its name suggests but there are many things it is not. It’s not challenging or interesting or engaging or exciting. So when you are faced with a choice, choose the challenge, choose the mountain, and you will never go back.

Kate Miners is a theatre major originally from England.


Zahir Rahman

Zahir Rahman

I still remember the first moment that I was on my own. It was after Freshman Move-In Day, when my father prepared to head home to Baltimore, and I was to embark on a new chapter of my life at Wake Forest University. I recall that very few words were spoken as we traded our goodbyes; we anxiously recognized that our relationship would never be the same.

Before he left, he gave me a piece of paper on which he made a few requests. Included were the typical, “Say your prayers,” “Study hard,” and “Call home.” At the bottom of the note, however, my father had scribbled, “Remember who you are.” With that, Dad put on his seatbelt and drove away, and I was, as I said, on my own.

I had a problem, though. My father’s request “remember who you are” required that I know who I was. Growing up an American Bangladeshi Muslim, defining my identity had always been very hard; I considered myself to be somewhat of a global citizen with ties to so many different types of people, making labels and self-definition incredibly difficult.

Upon entering Wake Forest, articulating my identity would prove to be even more challenging. The new environment offered many academic, social and spiritual paths, and I was overwhelmed pondering the possible outcomes of whichever identities I embraced.

I realized quickly that self-understanding would prove to be crucial to my college career; if I did not know myself, how could I know my role in the collegiate community? Initially, I took a piece of my father’s advice to “study hard,” thinking that through intellectual engagement I could cement my identities.

Classes in Arabic, international politics, economics and religion aided in this search, yet I soon found that reading, discussing and critical thinking within the confines of Tribble Hall inspired questions that could only be answered outside the classroom.

Motivated to explore my identity as a global citizen as well as my role in the Wake Forest community, I traveled with University Chaplain Reverend Tim Auman, Dr. Neal Walls of the Divinity School, and a group of undergrads and Divinity School students on a two-week trip to Egypt.

During this excursion, we studied the relationship between the country’s Muslim majority and Coptic Christian minority. Historically these groups have coexisted with tolerance, yet feelings of marginalization and animosity persist due to stifled Coptic political power and limited autonomy.

Despite their differences, I discovered that these two communities shared something integral to their diverse identities. In Cairo, I saw conservative religious dress, preservation of sacred space, domed and arched architecture, and gender dynamics in Coptic churches, things I had always associated with Islamic culture. Most striking, at Deir Mar Antonios, a Copt monastery built 400 years before the inception of Islam, I read “Allah,” this time referring to Jesus, as it glimmered in Arabic calligraphy on the walls.

Arabic has always been my closest connection to my religion as it is the language used by Muslims everywhere. In observing Coptic Christians, I found that Arabic, the fundamental building block of the Muslim faith and the common link within the Muslim world, serves as a connector to members of another religious community as well. Regardless of the politics and power struggles that divide Copts and Muslims in Egypt, it is their independent yet correlated love, admiration, and respect within their faiths that inevitably tie them together.

The following summer, 11 other students and I participated in the University Study Abroad program in Fez, Morocco, under the tutelage of Professor Tom Brister of the Political Science Department. In addition to our language classes, Professor Brister challenged us to see the interconnectedness of globalization, and how Morocco served as a prime example of this worldview.

For one of our assignments, Dr. Brister asked us to contrast the daily lives of the Moroccan cosmopolitan aristocracy to that of the Amazigh or Berber, tribal people of the nation’s rural areas. In our analysis and discussion, we found that Morocco’s rich historical diversity, marred by ethnic and cultural conflict, had resulted in great variance among the people.

We saw great poverty in the villages of the countryside juxtaposed with lavish European styled villas on the beaches of Tangier. Some of the nation’s people identified as Arab, others as African, several as European; some would speak only in French while many exclusively in Arabic; most used a mixture of the two. There is even no such thing as a typical “Moroccan cuisine,” as many waiters would claim both croissants and couscous were equally authentic Moroccan foods.

This varied collection of peoples and customs did not weaken Moroccan unity; rather, it strengthened it. We saw the Moroccan motto, “God, Nation, King” etched on the rolling hills of Ifran and in the mosaic tiles of Casablanca indicating that the people’s pride in their national identity pervaded all differences. They were indeed all “authentically Moroccan,” for it was a common experience of cohesion, struggle and diversity that defined their national identity.

In my own naiveté, when I arrived at Wake Forest I believed that it was necessary to define myself before discovering how I fit into our community. Through my travels in Egypt and Morocco, however, I have discovered that identity and community are not mutually exclusive ideas that one can isolate, analyze and explicitly articulate.

Rather, both are intrinsically linked; organic but developed, real but abstract, concrete but indefinite. Most importantly, just as communities gain strength and definition from the quality and depth of its members, individual identities are equally as reliant on the values and shared experiences of their communities.

As I saw in both Egypt and Morocco, communities that identify with particular faith and social traditions can have a common interest in the fate of their country. In Egypt, I observed as Copts and Muslims, people who oft consider themselves worlds apart, shared culture and practices essential to their faiths and near to their hearts.

Through my studies in Morocco, I found that while Moroccans are diverse in their ethnicities and livelihoods, their mutual experience and national identity trumped feelings of division. Clearly, this intricate and delicate understanding of community and individual exists here at Wake Forest as well.

We are Yankees and Southerners; we come from various states and a variety of nations. Some of us speak in variables and chemical formulas while others in prose and iambic pentameter. We are conservatives and liberals, introverts and extroverts. We have our own unique identities.

Our Wake Forest community is strengthened by our differences, but its foundation is built on our shared commonalties. Our passion for higher education. Our belief in Pro Humanitate. Our allegiance to the Old Gold and Black. Our trust in each other and the idea that one of our successes belongs to everyone, and that if one of us fail, we as a community have failed.

For while we claim different identities, we all share a common interest in Wake Forest. Indeed, Wake Forest is now what it has always been, and what it will be for years to come: an investor in talent, a believer in potential; an institution that recognizes the beauty of common humanity, and provides the resources and opportunities to make our aspirations come true.

Three years ago, my father challenged me to remember who I am. Although I have much to learn about what it means to be an American Bangladeshi Muslim, I can tell him now with conviction that I am Wake Forest. The community in which he left me has now become a part of who I am and who I will become.

I have learned in my time in Egypt, Morocco and of course Winston-Salem that while our differences add depth and variance in our personal identities, it is through our shared interests that our community is built. Indeed, while we will be a part of many identities and communities in the future, being Wake Forest will forever serve as our foundation.

Zahir Rahman is a political science major and religion minor from Baltimore, Md.

Categories: Pro Humanitate, Student, Wake Forest College