You could not have wished for a better Commencement this morning with temperatures in the sixties, a break from the rains, lush green lawns and magnolia blossoms at their peak, bursting to the size of salad plates. It was my first view of Wake Forest graduation exercises since a very hot day in 1982 when I marched reluctantly to the stage to receive my diploma from then-Provost Ed Wilson (’43). I wasn’t ready to leave Mother so dear, but, thank you, Wake Forest, all these years later for allowing me to return to this place I love to work on its behalf.
This Commencement, I enjoyed my vantage point from the outside stairs of Reynolda Hall facing the Quad, where I surveyed the marvelous array of grandparents juggling cameras, fathers in fine suits (one had a cigar in the lapel pocket), mothers with bouquets of yellow roses and children prancing about (one little girl turned cartwheels and bowed while President Hatch spoke).
Then, amid the sea of black robes and summer suits, other-worldly, extraordinary graduation finery caught my eye.
I had no trouble tracking down the group among the hundreds of spectators on the Quad. As someone who spent about a year and a half in Africa, I have a deep appreciation for the continent and its people. I wasn’t sure what country these members of the graduation audience considered home, but I couldn’t wait to meet them and find out.
They were the friends and family of graduating senior Oreofe Olutimilehin of Lagos, Nigeria. “I feel so good. I feel on top of the world,” said Oreofe’s mother, Olufunmilayo Olutimilehin. “She has done us proud. She came so young, but she has coped well.”
I’ll say. Oreofe’s mother told me her daughter is not yet 20. Her birthday is in August. Oreofe started her schooling at one year and five months of age. Now, after four years at Wake Forest, she has a B.A. with a double major in political science and international studies. She will begin the master’s program at the University of Pittsburgh this fall to study international development.
Taiwo Olutimilehin, Oreofe’s father, was pleased by today’s rite of passage for his daughter. “She’s been impacted,” he said, by her time in the United States and at Wake Forest. Added her mother, “She’s actually transformed. She can handle situations confidently and well.”
It helped that Wake Forest was not unfamiliar to the family. The mother’s cousin is Simeon Ilesanmi (JD ’05), Washington M. Wingate Professor of Religion, who teaches courses in comparative ethics, international human rights, African religions and religion and law. He wore his academic robes for Baccalaureate on Sunday, he said, but sat in African sartorial splendor with the family for Commencement.
After the ceremony, I met Oreofe.
She called her time at Wake Forest “a good learning experience” and named her highlights as rolling the Quad and studying abroad at Worrell House with Tom Phillips (’74, MA ’78), a professor and director of the Wake Forest Scholars program. He watched his London students from the steps of Reynolda Hall beside me, proud of their accomplishments. (For him, it was the third Commencement in three days, two for his children — from Raleigh to Connecticut — and then at WFU for his Worrell House students.) Oreofe had traveled before to England, so “it wasn’t like it was a big cultural shock” to come to Wake Forest to college. But there was a singular shock: “The food. Back home there’s a lot more spice.” Eventually, as is the case for so many of us, she grew used to the Pit: “You kind of have to,” she said.
From the Pit to the Quad, all who love Wake Forest have followed those familiar paths from the pinpoint on the map we call home to that blessed stage on graduation day. Congratulations, Class of 2011.