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The Confessions of a Show Dog

Xinxin (Stephanie) Zhang, a Chemistry with Biochemistry major from Lumberton, NC, was selected as one of three Wake Forest seniors to to read an oration at the Founder’s Day Convocation in Wait Chapel on February 21, 2013.  Her oration, “The Confessions of a Show Dog,” illustrates the importance of liberal arts and humanities education in her personal and intellectual development as a student.

This question came at some indecent hour of the morning when I was sitting in the admissions office of X medical school. “So what’s your trick?” asked my fellow interviewee, as I was eating bagel.

With my mouth full, I intelligently replied: “Mmf?”. I wasn’t quite sure what “trick” I was supposed to have.

“You know, your difference trick,” he replied. “What makes you different from everybody else.”

Xinxin Zhang (’13) at the Founder’s Day Convocation

The thing is, I did have a difference trick. I had a first-generation immigrant trick and a unique activities trick. These tricks were designed to be crowd-pleasers and calculated to set me apart from the stereotypical applicant. At that moment, as we sized each other by our repertoires, I felt like a prize poodle at a dog show, rather than a medical school applicant. The judgment of whether I could eventually be trusted with people’s lives relied on how many more tricks I had than my canine peers.

This “dog show world” is not new to any of us. All of us are sitting here, about to graduate from a prestigious institution, so clearly we’re good dogs. Since junior high we have been told that in order to get into a good college. To reach this goal, we need good grades, solid leadership, and preferably a national-level medal or two. In college, we learned that in order to get into law school, medical school or graduate school, we have to jump through more and more hoops. I’m just glad that they aren’t on fire. Yet.

I’ve been jumping these hoops for a very long time.  For example, I once ran cross country for two years.  It’s not that I liked to run or that I was any good at it, but I needed to play a sport to have a shot at certain scholarships.  I actually got lost in the woods frequently and had to be found by my teammates.  I never understood how my best mile time, which we don’t have to discuss, was related to my ability to do science.  And science is what I wanted to do.  I was told that this is how you got to go to school and do science.  As I continued into college I was committed to being a show dog of the highest caliber.  As a freshman I attended every single club meeting that had the words “resume- building” in the posters.  I now see that in my quest of becoming the perfect applicant, I trimmed off all the parts of myself that did not fit the mold.  I had loved art; I stopped drawing.  I had loved literature; I stopped writing.  I had been amazed that the mechanisms of life could be reduced into an elegant dance of elements.  But because I lived and died by my grades, I could no longer remember the romanticism of why I had loved science in the first place.

I had always assumed that my performance would lead me to where I want to go.  I was wrong.  In the summer of my sophomore year I went to Shanghai to do research on traditional medicine.  My grandmother, who lived there, had been diagnosed with breast cancer the year before.  I found that the word “cancer” had scared all the steel out of the matriarch who had raised her siblings, children and grandchildren.  I listened to her for hours and felt more powerless with every weak word she spoke.  Despite all my hoop jumping, I had no idea what to do or say.  The performance I had been so invested in had failed to instill any actual healing ability in me.  My ultimate goal was to become somebody who can make people feel better.  In my guilt, I saw that this very performance had led me astray.  I had become a show dog.  I had become the process and not the goal.  

It is somewhat ironic that the very thing that liberated me from performing for others was performing for myself.  In college, I discovered dance.  I found myself grooving on my way to class, after class, and occasionally in my head during class.  This was not in my four year plan.  “Completely untrained amateur dancer” does not improve a resume.  But once I started dancing, I didn’t know how to stop.  I didn’t know how to quit the excitement of being on stage in front of a screaming crowd.  I didn’t know to quit the silliness, camaraderie and love of my dance teams, Momentum Crew and Lost In Translation, which have become my second families.  Before, I had performed for the approval of others my entire life, and for the first time I was learning how to perform for myself, just to see what I’m made of.

With this first step, I began to venture out of the narrow boundaries I had set for myself.  I decided to double minor in Philosophy and Studio Art, simply because they’re beautiful.  As I began reclaiming the pieces of myself that had not fit the mold, I had worried that I was too presumptuous.  What did dancing and philosophy and art really have to do with medicine?  My answer is that good medicine heals the body and the soul.  Here at Wake Forest we are urged to embody the motto of Pro Humanitate.  However, before we can be “for humanity”, we must take one very important step.  We must first accept and nurture who we are, because that is the driving force behind everything we do.  Our passions are essential parts of us.  To suppress our authentic selves is to rob ourselves of the ability to genuinely understand, appreciate, and relate to others.  Only when we have embraced who we are can we fully devote ourselves to the good of humanity.

I don’t want to live like a show dog, although I’m sure the free food is great.  I want to live in a world in which none of us have to perform to get to where we want to go.  Realistically, I know that there are some hoops we have to jump.  To my fellow seniors, I hope that we will remember even as we are being externally judged that we are more than what can be quantified, more than our grades, more than our scores, more than our list of accomplishments.  My wish is that we will remember that behind our performances are our authentic selves.  The most important part of our journeys is to not get lost.

Category: Students