By Hsien-Ching (Jean) Chen (’12)

Hsien-Ching (Jean) Chen

At this very moment, on February 16, 2004, I am very sure that I was sitting on the first row of my only classroom in Taiwan. And if you should ask how I can be so certain about this distant memory, I can tell you that, it is because my life eight years ago was slavery.

I was a slave for academics. I was a slave for perfection. I was a slave for good grades. I was a slave for getting into the best university in Taiwan and achieving my parents’ expectations. When I first came to America, I learned the expression of a person ‘having no life.’ And indeed I did not have a life 8 years ago. I did not know what life is, according to American standards. However, I can confidently tell you now that, I have learned to live my life, make my own decisions with confidence and strive forward without hesitation to achieve my dreams.

Culture shock

I remember clearly my first day of class here at Wake Forest. My impressions of people here are perhaps different from what you would expect me to say. I did notice that people here laugh a lot, students and professors can talk like friends, everyone is happy to see one another, and students are not afraid of going to classes.

These differences came to my notice because I was stunned with how happy people are here. In front of my teachers, in Taiwan, I would never laugh the way I do now because it is disrespectful to them. I should show as much respect in my speech as I can. I could not be happy to see fellow students in my school because we were competing against each other for the best university; therefore, I had to see them as my enemies. I was terrified, every day to go to school because my daily life consisted of eight different tests, nine different courses, two musical instrument lessons, and six hours of sleep. I was only 14.

I subconsciously observed this Wake Forest society in comparison with my old society, and we can call this a culture shock. However, one thing I noticed from the people here that strikes me the most remarkable is that everyone here walks with confidence. It was not until I arrived here then I realized that I often walked with my head down. Indeed, if I did not learn anything else from this university, it is confidence that I have gained.

Discovering my interest in languages

It was obvious that I did not know how to choose the best for myself because my life was more or less a predestined story, and I was not the only child like that in Taiwan. I will always remember how I came to the decision on majoring in Russian. I was a follower of the pre-medicine track during my freshman year. Meanwhile I was taking Russian courses because I’ve always desired to learn this language. My mother’s expectation was to actually make me a doctor of some sort and, as a side issue, I could learn Russian if I wanted to. So my focus was mainly for science courses and Russian should only be a fun course, at least according to my lovely mother.

However, in my studies here I discovered that I am very interested in languages, so much so that I found myself comparing languages while I walk or when I hear people talking around me. I caught myself thinking, “How would I say this in Russian?” or “How can I translate this better into English?” This kind of thinking pattern continued as I studied more about languages.

Making my own choices

Yet nothing made me feel more awake until the day I received my first grade in one of my science courses. The moment I looked at the paper given back by the professor, I felt like I was instantly sentenced with the death penalty. I was in such disbelief that I would ever receive such a grade. My entire life up until that point had always revolved around good grades, more good grades, and perfect grades.

Later that day, I ran to see Professor Hamilton, my Russian professor and a dean back in those days, to get his signature to drop the course. I was so overwhelmed and in such grief that I cried in front of him in embarrassment. But then he told me that one sentence which changed my entire life. He said, “Jean, no one forces you to become a doctor. You can study Russian with me.”

After hearing his statement, I can tell you that I was liberated from the remainder of my old society. I truly felt enlightened because from that I moment I looked at myself differently. I no longer saw myself as a doctor in the mirror. I was free.

This university gives infinite opportunities for students to achieve their dreams and, for the longest time, my dream was to be rid of the kind of life style I had lived through in Taiwan. Not only had I learned that I should be the one making my own decisions because I am the one responsible for my life, I also learned that grades are not everything. Professor Hamilton often says, “Many students think that GPA is the vehicle that would take them to the final destination. If they get a low GPA, it is as if this vehicle cannot run fast enough. But they are wrong! The GPA is only a mirror!” I had never looked at my grades or GPA in that way because they meant the world to me. They were everything I had as a slave.

A different me

Every single day I think of my life in 2004 and my life now in 2012. I can never be less surprised at how different I have become today. I am now a big laugher. I can safely say that some professors are my best friends. I am delighted to see everyone on campus, and I am eager to go to classes every single day to learn.

I speak 5 languages, and I am an active legislator in student government. I am also president of the undergraduate International Student Association.

All these wonderful things could not have happened if I had not gotten that F, and it is not because I needed the failure in a course to realize my life is more than just a combination of good grades, but now my life is actually a path to achieve my dreams.

As a senior, I get questioned about my future plans almost every single day. When they ask, “Jean, are you ready for the real world? Are you prepared for the new challenges?” Well, I could not give them a good answer because I know I am not ready. But Wake Forest has given me, not the right answers to everything, but the courage to conquer anything. It has taught me that a life without mistakes is not worth living, but one with many corrected mistakes is.

William Ernest Henley said, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” I am sure this quotation is familiar to you. But when I heard this quote for the first time, I agreed with it deep in my heart.

I want to take this opportunity to thank every single one of you, and “ thank you, Wake Forest,” for making me a free person and letting me see how wonderful my life can be, and I know it will be.