“PBS NewsHour” Senior Correspondent Gwendolyn Ifill urged more than 1,700 Wake Forest University graduates Monday to identify their passions and commit to using their unique talents and gifts to improve their communities and the world.
“It is not essential that you care about everything, but it is essential that you care about something,” said the veteran journalist, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters after delivering the commencement address. “Make and keep a promise to yourself, a promise to find a mission in life … to care about something more than just yourself, but also affect the lives of those around you.”
Communications major Amanda Finney spent much of her college career living by Ifill’s words. She said some of the most remarkable learning experiences she enjoyed during her college career happened off campus. The Columbia, S.C. native spent a semester abroad in Madrid, Spain, and took the following semester off to serve as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s Organizing for America. Making the decision to leave Wake Forest a second time was not easy, but Finney, who interned in the White House’s Correspondence Office the summer after her freshman year, felt it was an opportunity she couldn’t afford to pass up. Looking back, the 21-year-old says she is glad she made the sacrifice.
“It was an incredible experience. I met amazing people,” she said of her time on the campaign trail, where she managed over 200 volunteers. “I was in Virginia, which was a battleground state. We did turn the state blue, so that was exciting.”
Finney is headed to New Orleans, La. this summer, where she will embark on a two-year stretch as an elementary school teacher through Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits stellar college graduates to teach in the nation’s toughest school systems.
“I’m hoping to make a difference. I’m glad I got the little kids so we can start at an early age with them,” she said.
For White Plains, N.Y. native Jason Green, commencement was just a brief pause in his ongoing academic career. The biology major is headed back to the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine to continue the research he began as an undergrad. He will then depart for Sweden, where the Fulbright Scholar will spend 10 months conducting research at the Nobel Prize-winning Integrative Regenerative Medicine Center at Linkoping University.
“I feel great; I just feel blessed. I’ve worked hard to get to this point, but but I’ve had so many positive people around me,” said Green, the youngest of three children. “I think to whom much is given, much is expected…Where I am blessed, I have a responsibility to make the most of these opportunities.”
Green plans to enter medical school in 2014.
“I think it’s something I’m made for. I’m very interested in medicine and blending that with scientific research to advance the field,” he said. “I love helping people. Medicine gives you that perfect mix of mental stimulation and the constant gratification of helping others.”
Green, a former WFU cornerback, also took time out to volunteer during alternative spring break excursions and, most recently, providing guidance and support to a cancer patient as a member of the inaugural class of the newly-formed nonprofit Take the Fight. Green was paired with a brain cancer patient who is now in remission. Watching her in her struggle was a source of great inspiration for him, Green said.
“I think it definitely increased my respect for the patient experience, particularly in relation to cancer,” he remarked. “…The amount of perseverance she displayed really inspired me to persevere myself, no excuses.”
During commencement, WFU President Nathan Hatch told graduates that perseverance is one of the most important components of success.
“No one is exempt from the School of Hard Knocks. The key is how we’re going to respond to such setbacks,” he said. “…You do need to find your passion, but it needs to be yoked to the mindset of persistence and determination.”
English major Tiffany Newsome has discovered a passion for international travel during her time at WFU.
“I think the abroad experiences stand out a lot for me just because I’m from a small town, a rural area, didn’t really come up with much, but I did my best and was able to get scholarships,” said Newsome, a native of Kelford. “…I’ve been to 17 countries up until now, and those trips gave me the experience to branch out and not be afraid to travel the world. That’s something that I really hadn’t dreamt of doing.”
Newsome said the faculty and staff at WFU worked closely with her, to ensure her modest financial background wouldn’t deter her from a single international experience.
“It’s been great,” Newsome said. “I can say that I’ve been challenged, I’ve been stretched, I’ve had fun, I’ve taken advantage of many opportunities.”
Following graduation, Newsome plans to become a teacher, answering what she says has been a longtime calling on her life. She believes the experiences she has been afforded at Wake Forest will serve her well in her career.
“I feel well prepared,” she said. “I think I’ve experienced a lot of colleagues being very nervous and very scared and very confused about this next step, but I think that things have just fallen in place for me, and I’m grateful for that. I don’t take it lightly.”
Ifill told graduates to expect the unexpected and not be afraid of change.
“Don’t take your guidance from what you see in Washington,” she said. “I hate to admit it, but it’s often the worst possible example of how to make change.”
She reminded the graduates to remain inquisitive and flexible throughout their lives.
“You have to prepare for life to kick you off course,” she declared. “You have to stay curious after your formal education ends. You always have to have another question in your hip pocket. You have to be open to the possibility of a change in direction that stays with you throughout your life.”