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‘Building Bridges at Home and Abroad’

– Senior Oration by Catherine (Cate) Berenato (’11)

Cate Berenato

Take a seat in the Pit or go to a basketball game – survey an English class or show up at a party, and a most inauspicious fact of life at Wake Forest becomes quickly clear. Although our school maintains an on-paper diversity befitting a highly-ranked national institution, the reality of social and academic life at Wake is otherwise. Indeed, the sad truth is that our community fosters a culture of racial and socioeconomic stratification. This stratification pervades school life from the day that nervous parents deliver giddy freshmen to their dorms until those students receive their diplomas four years later.

Unfortunately, this fact is not mere conjecture. Last year, the Princeton Review ranked Wake the seventh most racially and socioeconomically segregated campus in America. Still, the news is not all bad for our otherwise esteemed university. Wake’s impressive ability to send so many of its students abroad allows an incredible number of undergrads to interact with diverse cultures across the globe.

When I searched for a summer program abroad, I knew only that I wanted to take courses on environmental conservation, an enduring interest of mine. Before I could blink, I had spent a summer studying biodiversity in Peru and living among the country’s people. I was instantly immersed in a unique world of wonder and hazard – risk but ultimate fulfillment. And as expected, I learned more about myself, more about people, and more about the world than I did about the scientific endeavors I was sent to research. I went back again the next summer, and I consider the experience a key turning point in my life.

I don’t quite recall, however, how to distinguish one species of palm tree from another. I doubt that I could still identify a Harpy Eagle in the field. But I will never forget the look on the face of Fabio, our hotel-gardener, when we presented him with a sentimental parting gift. I will always bear in mind what a simple act of kindness can mean to a stranger. I also remember that Elena from the remote town of La Novia is 82, still harvests Brazil nuts, and is a self-made entrepreneur. I will never forget her enormous grin or labored stride as she came to envelop me, a complete stranger, in an enormous hug rather than a formal or indifferent hand-shake. In that moment, I knew that despite being from such different worlds, a cross-country runner and budding environmentalist from Blacksburg, Virginia, could so quickly and so totally fuse with an Amazonian agriculturalist and grandmother.

My experience in Peru reinforced what my Wake Forest education had already led me to understand: People everywhere, regardless of class or race, are more alike than they are different. All parents want a nurturing environment for their children. Every student wants to leave a unique and lasting mark on the world, and most of us, regardless of shape, size, or color, try to do what we believe is right. Bridging lines of division, not reinforcing them, is the means by which this understanding comes into focus.  However, one should not have to travel to another continent in order to learn from a variety of cultures.

Luckily for us, we live in an increasingly globalized country, and discovering diversity is not a difficult task. In fact, nearly half of the residents of Winston-Salem are racial minorities. When we leave the bounds of our gated campus for good, we will probably start a career in a place where such diversity is the norm. Why, then, is social segregation our norm here at Wake? Nationally, Americans have made great strides in terms of race relations. The occupant of the Oval Office is the son of a Kenyan immigrant and a Hawaiian anthropologist. Latino Americans are increasingly being welcomed into the American family and actually have passed African Americans as our nation’s largest minority. But just look around. How many African Americans hold leadership positions in student government? How many Latino Americans do you see sitting in this room? The reality of socioeconomic and racial life on Wake Forest’s campus does not match that of contemporary society. And blatant social divides are not fitting of an elite national university seeking to shape the next generation of global leaders.

There’s no doubt that the academics here are exceptional, and Wake’s ascent in the academic rankings is clear proof. And we can all be proud that our Wake Forest family is a strong one. Students are thrilled when we are invited to a professor’s home. We are proud of our faculty for innovative and pioneering research. We enjoy competing in one of the best athletic conferences in the country. However, we must not allow our pride to blind us from our shortcomings. If Wake Forest is to live up to its reputation as a preeminent national institution, we must demonstrate the “Pro Humanitate” spirit in each and every aspect of our community. We must continue to build bridges, not just to foreign countries, but to those who seem like foreigners in our midst. For the greatest knowledge is not solely learned in textbooks, but is enhanced and developed through our everyday interactions with all members of our Wake Forest family. The challenge facing our university is significant. But if we face it with the same bold virtue and tenacious vision that has defined our first century and a half as an institution, our next century and a half can be our best yet.