The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community

Worrell House

Spanish lessons? Put a bird on it

My single biggest regret about my academic life at Wake Forest is that I failed to spend a semester abroad at Casa Artom or Worrell House. Alumni I meet never hesitate to wax nostalgic about their happy days during their semester abroad and, in some cases, will tell you how they fell in love with their spouse during those months across the pond.

You will find a shortage as acute as cheap Facebook stock shares if you look for recent alumni and current students who made my mistake. Study abroad is de rigueur these days at Wake Forest, and abundant choices include Flow House in Vienna and various programs that can be tailored to our students’ aspirations, from Managua to Madrid.

This semester I heard an entirely fresh take on the study-abroad experience that will have our Wake Forest heroine telling tales for the rest of her days. As far as I know, Clare Rizer, a rising senior from Charlotte, N.C., did not meet her future spouse during her semester in Madrid last fall. She did, however, meet one very nosey, sassy parrot.

"Last night was a blast, eh?"

I’ll let Clare tell you her story. (By the way, she  is a rising senior majoring in history with a minor in Spanish and sociology. She’ll be a Wake Forest Magazine intern next fall.):

“While it is common for Wake Forest students to study abroad in a country with a language barrier and experience firsthand the difficulties of grappling with the unfamiliar, it is uncommon, however, to learn a new language from the mouth, no, beak, of a caged, avian amiga. Cuckoo was my sister abroad, my very loud, obnoxious and narcissistic sister. She was an African Grey Parrot with a red tail and, for some inexplicable reason, she chose to pluck herself of all hairs on her breast. Comical appearance aside, Cuckoo had a voice that filled the apartment (and that of our upstairs neighbors) with daily, intermittent cackles, questions … and even catcalls.

“Cuckoo lived in the parlor of my host mother, Elisa’s, apartment. As her husband was living in the southern region of Spain with his ill mother for the majority of the fall, Eliza found in Cuckoo a joy: her pet, companion and child all wrapped into one. I first encountered Cuckoo as I strolled down the apartment entrance hall for the first time. I heard a mysterious voice say “Hola, Guapa” (“Hello, beautiful”) in Spanish. I immediately assumed it was an overzealous male of the household, but then glanced over to see the thing that, in a few short weeks, would become both my teacher and my nemesis.

“Spain is a country that never sleeps. Or, in my opinion, sleeps at the most inconvenient hours of the day (don’t even get me started on the pitfalls of siesta). I experienced this aggravation firsthand. Cuckoo enjoyed the hours between dusk and dawn and used the quiet time to her personal advantage. When all the lights were out and the house was silent, Cuckoo began to coo. She had a whistle that I can still mock perfectly to this day. She made her own music while I simultaneously attempted to drown out her late-night noises. One night, however, she silenced her whistling and instead began to speak Spanish words. It was that night that I realized this bird and I would form a special bond. I removed my headphones, eagerly absorbing her impressive dialogue.

” From that day forward, I embraced Cukoo as my personal tutor, and we gabbed away many afternoons together.

“Cuckoo: ‘Hola, guapa.’ Como estas? (Hi, pretty. How are you?)

“I : ‘Muy bien chica. Y tu?’ (Very well, and you?)

“She taught me Spanish sarcasm and slang — ‘Noche fue una juerga, eh’ (Last night was a blast, eh?)  — and through her guidance as my renegade tutor, I was the most ‘in the know’ study-abroad student at my school. The incessant ‘Hola, guapa’ chants were also an exciting self-esteem boost each day before and after school, and I do selfishly miss that daily comfort and frequent question: ‘Es tu tarea muy muema?’ (Is your homework very dull? I would respond, ‘Obviamente, chica.’ Obviously, girlfriend!)

“At my ‘last supper’ on my final day in Spain, Elisa let Cuckoo out of her cage for the first time since my arrival and, as dignified as ever, my little friend pranced around the living room, accentuating her human qualities in full. Tipsy on Spanish wine, Elisa, my roommate and I laughed until our stomachs hurt, giggling at our pompous and loquacious companion. This semester, bookended by the antics of a small bird, was truly what I would call, ‘unrivaled by any.'”

There you have it. While Cuckoo will remain a singular pal, Clare experienced a study-abroad semester that is typical from what I hear from Wake Foresters everywhere. It was “una juerga” alright — a blast.

Global graduation

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.

A Nigerian delegation in splendor

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.

The Olutimilehin family celebrates

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.