By Aishwarya Nagar (’16)
To my younger brother,
I’m so excited that you’ll come to see me graduate! You always ask me what my time at Wake Forest has been like, and I’ve finally found the words to do the explanation justice.
I know that 11th grade, the IB program, and the SATs are really stressful for you, especially at our competitive international high school in New Delhi. I understand the chaos of your life in Delhi, full of after-school tutoring, cricket tournaments, and SAT prep courses – not to mention the inherent stress of growing up with our strict, Indian parents. You’re looking forward to the great adventure of going to college – to experience the world and find some control, order, and self-made success in your life.
This same pursuit of adventure and success motivated me to take a chance and apply to a liberal arts college in the United States. Even though it meant leaving my whole family and flying across the world to jump headfirst into a foreign culture, here I found a university ready to support the misadventures of a worldly South Asian woman caught between diverse academic interests, wanting a secure future, and wanting to revolutionize the world. I walked onto this colorful, serene campus during my freshman year, with all my possessions in two suitcases, ready to find focus and calm in the land of freedom.
My first lesson at Wake Forest was realizing that a pursuit of order is overrated; chaos is where I found my Maslowian self-actualization. Nietzsche, encapsulating this sentiment perfectly, says “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star”. Even entropy in Physics teaches us that the universe spontaneously proceeds towards disorder.
I entered Wake Forest as the only Indian international student on campus. I felt like Ifem from Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; almost instantly, I was bombarded with questions like “Why is your English so good?”, “So why do you worship cows?” and “Wow, can you get me one of those ethnic shirts?” which made me want to completely conceal my Indian foreign-ness. I entered Wake Forest knowing I would be pre-med with a Biology major, eventually becoming a neurosurgeon who writes bestsellers in her spare time.
But Wake Forest makes it impossible for anyone to stick to an ordered life. Liz, the protagonist of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat Pray Love, travels the world to find herself. I, instead, found myself in the raw, compelling beauty of Wake’s liberal arts curriculum. It’s why I’m still a Biology major, but with minors in Religion, Philosophy, and formerly Neuroscience. Only Dr Pat Lord can help me figure out what to do with all that. I’ve visited the Taj Mahal several times, but only after my Islamic Art & Architecture course could I actually see the nuanced beauty within its ornate, marble gates. My South Asian Women: Religion, Culture, and Politics class in the Religion Department absolutely revolutionized my interests at Wake! It took only one philosophy class for me to immediately declare a minor in it. I remember walking into my Food Politics class, scared of being intimidated by Political Science majors, but instead having the most fulfilling academic experience of my senior year. The chaotic magnificence of liberal arts makes of the mind what world-renowned painters have made with tubes of paint and a stretch of canvas.
This academic smorgasbord does more than equip you with theories and concepts. It makes you question the foundation of your most basic beliefs. As one of the few South Asian women and international students here, I struggled to name the discomfort I felt at Wake Forest. This community has changed so much in the past four years! I witnessed more than 300 of my peers attend and enjoy South Asian festivals like Holi and Diwali on campus. We heard Laverne Cox share with us her struggles and triumphs as a black, trans woman at a time when our campus (and country) was struggling with race relations. Students consistently organize for better treatment of minorities. The vandalism of the LGBTQ Center, the bucket of urine outside Imam Griggs’ door, and the infamous rap party did not go unnoticed. We question the efficacy of our service trips, invest our time in food sustainability, attend social justice retreats, and constantly reinvent the vision of Pro Humanitate It’s fascinating how transformative these experiences have been to our community! The visible and hidden diversities of Demon Deacons stands as our greatest strength.
I know, my brother, that this chaotic buffet of experiences sounds overwhelming. However, when you thrive on the diversity of ideas and identities, the appeal of order fades into the background. My academics and social experiences have really pushed me to challenge myself. Dr. Ramachandran (who will never forgive me for publicly calling her “Rama mama” during our religion class one day) was discussing the exploitation of women in Indian nationalism in class when she said “There are so many ways to be different, but so little room to be”. This quote resonated with me profoundly, for she has often seen me barge into her office and angrily rant about my experiences with Orientalism, Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia. I’m glad that this campus gave me the room to celebrate the many ways in which I deviate from my peers. You too, dear brother, may struggle with how your identity is received here, but you’ll also find people who support you and help you flourish.
This is precisely the adventure that awaits you.
As you get ready to write college essays and fill out applications, you’re probably questioning your self-worth and your future. With graduation around the corner, applying to medical schools, graduate programs, and Wake Forest Fellows positions, I find myself in the same position. The prospect of future adventures excites me, but the thought of leaving this campus evokes in me a bittersweet sentiment.
To all those professors who stayed after class to indulge my curious, tangential questions: our intellectually stimulating conversations have made me who I am today. To all of my first-year residents and student advisees, who have bravely humored my attempts at mentorship and community building: you have made leaders out of mere students like me. To those at offices like Office of Multicultural Affairs, Women’s Center, Pro Humanitate Institute etc.: you make this campus a home for everyone. Lastly, to the Class of 2016: oh what adventures we’ve had from the day we walked through the arch of Hearn Plaza, to the day we walk back out of it!
And as for you, my dear brother… I can’t wait to see you at graduation! Maybe you too will consider making this campus your home, as I have.
~ Your loving sister