Lillian Nassif (’21), Undergraduate Diploma Ceremony speech

Fellow graduates, family and friends, congratulations to you all on your accomplishments being recognized here today. In about three minutes, I’ll ask you all to stand so that we may sing our Alma Mater for the last time as Wake Forest University students. But before that happens, though, I’m just going to take a brief moment — because I know you’re all pressed to go and celebrate or rest or both — to remind you of something important. I want to talk to you about a rebirth of wonder.

During a time when most of my energy was spent working for awards, good grades and standardized scores, Wake asked me to imagine — my fellow graduates will remember this moment from four years ago — as part of our Wake Forest application, we were asked to write a top 10 list, a prompt so open-ended that it almost felt bizarre. I remember feeling vulnerable because for the first time in my high school career, there was no Quizlet or Google search that could offer the perfect response I ached for. I had no other choice but to think outside of the box, using my imagination to reveal who I was through a simple list. As I completed the list, I realized I had reawakened a fundamental skill I had exercised unconsciously my whole life.

Growing up in a multiethnic household in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia meant that I’d always needed to imagine connections between the languages, cultures, and philosophies that culminated in my personal identity. Within me were these powerful pairings: the common value of kindness inherent to both Christianity and Islam, the similar intonations of the Spanish and Arabic languages, and a host of fears and desires that are shared among all people. Unlike any other species on the planet, we have been gifted with the power to imagine. This gift allows us to see beyond the binaries and to form connections between groups that on the surface might seem worlds apart.

From the very beginning of our association at wake forest, we were asked to imagine, because what is education without this quality? It takes imagination to learn and to challenge our belief systems. It takes imagination to care and to defend causes beyond our individual life experiences. And it takes imagination to forgive, to grow and to move forward, regardless of the challenges. Creating a top 10 list for Wake was more than just a fun activity. It was an initial test of our capacity to think critically about who we are, using our creativity to convey our identity in a way that goes beyond black or white thinking.

Growing up as a woman in an authoritarian regime taught me the power as well as the danger that can come from being able to see the world for its gray spaces. When my external circumstances restricted me, imagination and inquiry were my strongest weapons because they offered me a vision of the future that not only felt, but in fact was limitless.
Wake has taught me to see imagination as a pillar for human empathy. And as we look to the future this year and reflect on the meaning of success, we should realize that imagination comes at the heart of that, too. When we think about who we want to be and what we’re going to do as we engage in the world, each of us can look back at what we have learned here. The times where I’ve been the most successful were not when I was motivated by external markers of success, such as prestige or status. My best moments here were when I was motivated by my excitement and my passion, especially when I could imagine myself doing something.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, “I Am Waiting,” describes the significance of imagination and allowing us to envision and create better possibilities for the future. I’m going to quote him real quick:

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead

and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

Through Ferlinghetti’s vision, we have been reminded of our power to build a future that brings innocence, imagination and excitement to the forefront in a rebirth of wonder. Fellow graduates, as we move forward into this new, exciting era, we should nurture our capacity to imagine and wonder. We don’t need magic to change the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. Wake Forest has shown us the power of imagination.