Emmy Liss ’11: You are what you do

Sunday, May 29, 2011

“So, Emmy, what do you do at Brown?”

I have been asked this question countless times. Once the first-semester freshman year question of “Where are you from?” gets tiring, and people realize the “What are you studying?” question is not quite relevant or permanent, the inquiry about what you do takes precedence. And here I was, a second-semester senior, and I suddenly found myself faltering.

When I first arrived at Brown as an overeager freshman, I was desperate to find something to do. The stereotype of an overachieving high school student, I had participated in every extracurricular activity imaginable. And so, at the freshman activities fair, I picked up stacks of flyers and signed up for countless email lists. I attended introductory meetings and talked to upperclassmen. And then, one day, while trying to fill in the crossword puzzle, I noticed an ad in The Herald for an info session. No experience was required, which was good — I had next to none — and the meeting was that night. So I added it to my planner, amid the thirteen other things I was determined to try out, and I went.

I was instantly impressed by the people I met and the organization itself, and promptly took on my first article. I wrote throughout the semester, but remained unsure of how much to commit myself. I was scared to so quickly wed myself to one activity, and so I kept trying out several of the groups I had discovered at the fair. Jumping from meeting to meeting, I felt like I was back in high school with a schedule full of different commitments. I was back to playing activity roulette.

Midway through the fall, I had coffee with an older Herald editor. She asked if I had aspirations of rising through the paper’s ranks, and I found myself without a clear answer. I liked being a part of the group, but wasn’t that a big time commitment? What about all those other things I could be doing? She told me I would never feel like I was part of an organization until I became deeply involved. And if I had even the slightest inclination that The Herald was an activity I enjoyed and wanted to spend more time on, I should give it a shot.

Taking her advice, I went from an only partially committed, occasional writer to a round-the-clock reporter. After a few weeks of production nights, last-minute articles, Herald social events and just coming to the office for no reason at all, something clicked. The more time I spent at The Herald, the more I wanted to be there. At the end of freshman year, I unsubscribed from about fifteen listservs and never looked back.

The Herald was my activity, but it also became my identity at Brown. In a class of 1,500 and an undergraduate body of 6,000, it is impossible to know everyone. And so we carve out little niches for ourselves, and identify everyone else by theirs. For better or for worse, we assume everything based on the team you play for, the house you live in or the newspaper you edit. College can be scary and lonely, and so we find and build communities we can rely upon.

When I returned from studying abroad in the fall of junior year, I was overwhelmed by the degree to which my friends and my life at Brown had evolved. My semester away had been a perfect change, but the readjustment to life on College Hill was far more difficult than I expected. And yet, when I returned to the Herald office, the transition suddenly became easier. These were my people, and this was my home.

This column may be my personal love letter to The Herald, but it is not a recruitment pitch. (If you’ve come to an activities fair in the last three years, I’ve probably already given you one.) This is a more broad-reaching directive.

Go find an activity you love so much you can stay there till 2 a.m. Look for the people you want to work with for five days straight, and then spend the whole weekend with. Spend your time wisely and make it count. Rather than spreading yourself thinly across the entire University, concentrate on what matters most to you. Not everyone has to agree with the activities you pick, and your friends may never understand why you choose to be proofreading at midnight on a Thursday. Craft your own identity and discover the people you want to share it with.

My position on The Herald’s editorial board ended in December, and for the last six months, I’ve been without the activity I came to use as my identity. At first it was strange and unnerving, but the truth is, certain things stick with you forever. Even as a second-semester senior, quickly moving away from my undergraduate career, I realized I could still answer a simple question about who I am at Brown and what I do: “I was a Herald editor.”



Emmy Liss was deputy managing editor of The Herald in 2010. In the fall, she will start work at McKinsey & Company in New York.