Spending my time doing what I want at Brown University

Sara Slama

Fulbright Center Undergraduate Grant 2007-2008
Brown University

Sara on the right
The philosophy of Brown University's liberal arts college, in my interpretation, is that you can do what you want, all you want and nothing but what you want. Having spent a semester at this, in some ways, utopian college I have discovered two catches in its philosophy. The first is that doing what you want can be very difficult when nobody is going to tell you what you should be wanting. The second is that you only have 24 hours a day. There is, luckily, a solution to the first catch. It is called experimentation. But this complicates the second catch, for which there is no solution other than appreciating the immense value of time. These challenges run through every aspect of life at Brown and enhances its distinct character of passion and energy.

Academically, Brown's open curriculum essentially allows students to choose any classes they like, from Engineering to Art History. Requirements for academic concentrations are held at a minimum to allow for vast academic experimentation. Indeed, it is in some ways considered a waste of the opportunity offered to you as a Brown student if you choose to only take classes related to your own field, because the idea is that Brown graduates should have an understanding of a multitude of disciplines. But, of course, you can do whatever you want. For me personally, the value of this freedom can not be underestimated. For the first time in my life, I feel that everything I do stems from my own choice. At Brown, I am able to concentrate in the two fields that interest me the most: Psychology and International Relations. I am also learning Arabic and taking seemingly unrelated classes, such as Art and Ethnobotany - just because I really want to be able to speak Arabic, improve my drawing skills, and learn how to grow plants.

In the non-academic sphere, the same ideas prevail: you are expected to make the most of your time, experiment and discover who you are, not because somebody tells you, but because you have a fantastic opportunity to do so. Therefore, I tried a host of activities last semester, ranging from playing the trumpet in the Brown Band to copy-editing for the university's student-run newspaper The Brown Daily Herald. After a few trials-and-errors in this area, I decided to pursue two activities more seriously: Brown Tae Kwon Do and the Samaritan's Suicide Hotline. The former I only started at Brown after hardly having done any sports at all in the past, but it is very effective since it bears some similarities to how I perceive the army - you get shouted at until you work - and it is said that you could go from scratch to a black belt in four years. The latter is not entirely new to me, since I have worked with phone counseling before, and I consider the Samaritans a good way of giving a small part of what I have received back to the community I live in. This semester I will also begin pursuing a new community service, the Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment Program, which essentially means that I will visit a newly arrived Iraqi refugee family once a week to play with their children and help them with English.

Apart from academics and extra-curriculars, an absolutely crucial part of college experience is socializing. I believe this is emphasized more in the US than in Finland as, here, your social life is not considered merely recreation or part of your private life, but it is integral to your education. There are, in my opinion, two main ways of approaching one's social life at Brown. The first way is one that I despise, but it is nevertheless prevalent. This entails viewing socializing as "networking", making friends for the purpose of having connections that will be useful for business later in life. Indeed, some (perhaps cynical) people claim that this is the primary reason why it is profitable to invest money in going to a wealthy, famous university. This way you will meet wealthy, famous people who, hopefully, will help make you wealthy and famous in the future. To put it crudely. During orientation at Brown, I was advised by peers to befriend at least two professors per semester. I was told that I had to, because it would improve my grades and they would serve as valuable connections. I am quite sure that this would not have happened in Finland - it would be considered a form of corruption. Nevertheless, I took my peers' advice and have therefore had the privilege of having some very fascinating conversations with people who "know what they are talking about" in fields that interest me greatly. In my case, I do not believe it has had any other influence on my grades than in the sense that it has increased my interest in the subject and therefore my ability to retain information of it.

This brings us to the second way of approaching one's social life at Brown - as a learning experience - and this is the approach I prefer to take. There are extremely fascinating individuals at Brown, often disguised as your professor, your classmate, your room mate or the random person sitting at the table next to you in the dining hall. I have spent as much time at Brown simply talking to people as I have in the classroom or pursuing activities. Often I disagree with the views I encounter, often conversations frustrate me and sometimes - in the most difficult of all debates - I am forced to modify my own views. This is extremely important. In this respect, I fully endorse the view of the University's President, Ruth Simmons. In her Opening Convocation speech, President Simmons told us, the students, that if we have intended to come to Brown only to speak to those who are similar to ourselves and share our interests as well as our opinions, we should leave straight away, because then we have chosen the wrong place. I have made an effort at incorporating this philosophy into the way I go about my social life at Brown. It happens that I find people here intimidating or right out scary, often because they are more knowledgeable or skilled than me and sometimes simply because they look neat, wear suits and make smooth polite conversation, while I have dreads, wear a poncho, and make rude, controversial statements just for the fun of it. By deliberately approaching these apparent antitheses of myself, I have learned far more about people than in any of my Psychology classes, and I have made some very close friends with some very different perspectives.

One might say that academic, extra-curricular and social experimentation is doing a fairly good job of teaching me who I am, who I want to be and what I want to do. The question, however, is where this places me in terms of the second catch - we are all limited to our 24 hours. Unfortunately, I find myself becoming more and more like the average Brown student in refusing to cut down on studying, socializing or activities, but rather cutting the corners on another time-consuming activity. This is perhaps best illustrated by a memorable situation last semester when I saw my friend Mike about to fall over outside his Arabic classroom one morning. I gave him a hug and said: "Mike, you look really tired, have you been sleeping at all the past few nights?" "Not really," he said. "But it's OK, tonight I'll really get to catch up on sleep - I'm going to allow myself a solid six hours." At the end of the day, most college students just need to learn what works for them, and sometimes, what their bodies can cope with. For me, six hours is still bordering on sleep deprivation and I would like to keep my perspective that way. However, the temptation not to sleep is great because when I have been cutting corners during my time at Brown so far, it has always been worth it.

1. Political correctness in a multicultural society.

Upon being introduced to a new person named Reyad, I asked the question that had become the norm during international orientation: "Where are you from?" Only this wasn't international orientation anymore. "North Carolina", Reyad driely responded. At least in my part of Finland, if a person looks remarkably foreign and has an exotic name, it's a good conversation starter to ask where they're from originally. So I pursued: "OK, but I'm sure your parents are from somewhere else?" Silence followed, until finally my friend Peter, who knows that foreigners say strange things unintentionally, explained to me: "Sara, you don't ask that here. Reyad is American, he lives in North Carolina and so do his parents." He added something about cultural differences and then we all had a laugh about it. I got away without causing any hard feelings that time, but I learned an important lesson. In the US, unless somebody (like myself) has an accent that indicates that they have been brought up abroad, you should not ask what country they are from. Most likely, Reyad, Abdul and Zhong are American, and only American, just like Kevin and John.

2. Homesickness

A few weeks into my first semester, I was invited to a sauna night arranged by a campus fraternity. Imagine my disappointment when I looked at my schedule and realized I couldn't go. I soon found out, however, that I needn't have been disappointed at all, since this fraternity's idea of a sauna night was a group of semi-naked people assembled in a bathroom where the only cause of heat were showers running at maximum temperature. 30-40 degrees, tops. Relaxing and comfortable? Just like at home? Not likely.

3. Dangers

In the US, everything is dangerous. At least this is what I have been told - from my mum, from American friends and certainly from Brown's Department of Public Safety that e-mails all students weekly safety tips. But it is not just that we need to beware of downtown Providence after dark or of walking alone anywhere, ever. Some dangers are lurking where you least expect it - in your own room. Who would have known that our recycling bins (a pair of plain buckets) were in fact death traps? Luckily, the manufacturer was caring enough to provide warning labels, located under the buckets: "Warning: Children can fall into bucket and drown. Keep children away from bucket with even a small amount of water." My room mate and I began collecting warning labels like these. Essentially, they are funny reminders that our impression of the US as a very dangerous country may in some cases have less to do with reality than the attention given to each potential danger.

4. The language barrier

In the Brown Band, we have a tradition of going to a campus cafe for dinner each Tuesday after practice. This Tuesday it was particularly crowded and noisy so we had to speak in loud voices. I was also a bit stressed out because I hadn't arranged for materials for my Art class the following day. Essentially I needed all sorts of little things to make a "mini-universe" in a box, which was our assignment. So, in the hope that my fellow bandies could help me out, I burst out: "Guys, I need junk!" "You need junk?", a puzzled-looking bandie asked. I realized it must have been strange to ask for garbage, but then bandies are usually strange, so I figured it was OK. "Yes, do you know who might have junk?" Silence followed. "Guys, I really need junk. Mike has junk, right?" More silence. "It's for my Art class tomorrow..." Multiple sighs of relief ensued and then my friend Jesse explained: "Sara, 'junk' is slang for drugs. What you mean is that you need trash. And yes, Mike would have trash." "Oh. Thanks."