Outside one of the studios at the Nelson Fitness Center during Alexis Devine’s ’03 spin class, the vibrations of buoyant music and the sounds of gasping laughter fill the air. Devine, a fitness instructor at Brown since 2002, teaches cycling and cardio kick-boxing classes that leave participants dripping with sweat, offering a total of six classes per week.
Beyond physical activity, Devine said she particularly enjoys helping students learn to advocate for themselves in terms of their stress management and self-esteem.
“Brown is an intense place,” she said, which “can be really anxiety-inducing.” People often overlook the difficulty of balancing a multitude of commitments at a young age, she added.
Devine is keenly aware of such pressures. Before joining Brown as an undergraduate student and trainer, she gave birth to her daughter, Tyler, at age 19 and struggled as a low-income single mother for many years, she said. The motivational aspect of her classes stems from her own experiences overcoming pain, she said.
“Not to be graphic, but I’ve given birth twice, and I know there’s a point in your physical ability where your mind will say you can’t,” she said. “But you can.” She added that she encourages students to test their limits and that to do so they need to “get out of their own way.”
“I was a really, really angry teenager, and I think this stemmed from insecurities I’d had since I was very young,” she said. But she added that her anger may have fueled her motivation to defy stereotypes.
“People outright told me I’d never get (into Brown), that I couldn’t do it with a child,” Devine said. But she was motivated to pursue her education to live her life as the “baseline standard” for the woman she hoped her daughter would grow up to be, she said.
Though Devine said she knew at the time how fortunate she was to be able to attend Brown, she and her daughter continued to confront challenges even after her acceptance letter arrived. When she first started attending the University, she lacked the funds and resources for child care services and often had to take her daughter along to classes.
“(My professors) sure were confused when I walked into class with a kid — especially since I’m biracial but look white, and my kids look black,” she said, but professors were always understanding and accommodating, despite their bewilderment.
Devine said her experience as a teenage mom exposed her to certain social issues that she might not have learned about otherwise. She originally intended to go to medical school, but learning about the racial disparities in health care compelled her to pursue public health. Inspired by her education in human behavior, she now runs a program that teaches professional and life skills to at-risk youth.
Her philosophy about training the young people in her program extends to the methods she employs in her fitness classes, she said — her training style resembles that of a boot camp.
Devine said she can intuitively perceive when a student is distracted from achieving his or her potential. When she feels the energy in her class lagging, she sometimes turns off the music and rhetorically asks, “What’s going on in here?”
Briel Crespi ’15, who has been taking Devine’s cycling classes since her first semester at Brown, praised Devine’s ability to motivate students to surpass their self-imposed limitations.
“First off, she cares about you, and second off, she expects more out of you,” Crespi said. “Say I’m going into class and I’m not so into it that day — she’ll make a point of telling me I’m not sweating hard enough. Every time I go in there, I push myself further than I thought I could go before.”
Mikalei Gordon ’12, a research assistant at Brown who also attends Devine’s classes, echoed this sentiment.
“(Devine) really focuses on the psychological aspects of exercise as well as the physical,” she said. “She helps you channel your inner energy and push through your mental barriers.”
“You have to validate the hard things you’re going through and accept them and cry about them,” Devine said. In a world where many people face intense hardships on a regular basis, what is most important is knowing that “I woke up today and I’m okay.”