Columns

Nikhil Kumar: Atlas

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2017

In high school, I started a Tumblr account with the username, “peoplecartographer.” I titled the blog “Atlas” and wrote a short description: “A collection of maps. An exploration of the world.” My posts featured maps I found online — including a map of terms used in the United States to refer to water fountains highlighting Rhode Island’s peculiar preference for “bubblers” — accompanied by a paragraph of my analysis. Though I concluded this “Atlas” during the summer after my freshman year here at Brown, geography has remained one of the most important tools I use to make sense of the world. Reflecting upon the geographies specific to Brown brings into focus both the immense privilege and the weighty duty attached to our undergraduate experience.

Starting small, consider the geography of our jewel-like College Hill campus. Many of my friends know how much I love to lie on the grass on the Main Green, flanked by Sayles Hall, University Hall and Faunce House, feeling the Providence sun’s warmth on my cheeks or meditating in the trees’ cool shade and then posting a photo on Instagram with the hashtag #BrownUniversity. The Main Green is the heart of campus, the origin of so much of the university’s life. It hosts orientation events and commencement ceremonies, Spring Weekend concerts and quiet vigils, protests and celebrations. Students, administrators, faculty and staff members cross paths with people whom they may never meet otherwise and walk in the footsteps of all those who have animated Brown through the centuries. On a campus that extends from the Jewelry District to Ives Street and for a community with roots all over the world, the Main Green is a point of unity — geographically and spiritually.

But the pristine and functional condition of the Main Green doesn’t come easy. In fact, it requires sustained effort throughout the year. Facilities workers salt and plow the sidewalks when it freezes and snows, build and dismantle stages and rows of chairs for special events and aerate and seed the lawns each spring. Despite the wear and tear of harsh winters and repeated trampling, the Main Green is ceaselessly renewed and cherished by the Brown community. And just as we acknowledge the efforts that have produced today’s Main Green in all its shimmering glory, we must never forget the labor of the slaves who built University Hall or, in more recent decades, the student activism that has used this space to shape the more inclusive university we attend today.

Of course, the geography of the Brown experience extends far beyond the Main Green. From my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, I have flown into T. F. Green Airport at the beginning of each semester. I have ventured by train to New York and Philadelphia and interned in Boston during the summer. I have studied abroad in Paris, and then again in London, and explored nearby cities like Brussels and Vienna. Each member of the class of 2017 has her own story of movement and wanderlust: coming to the United States for the first time as an international student, transferring to Brown from another college or volunteering in the Providence community. The local, national and global mobility available to Brown students thanks to the University’s alumni network and study abroad opportunities is stunning.

Rather than disconnecting us from Brown, time away from campus contributes immeasurably to our education. I carry with me at Brown all of the places I have visited and all of the lessons I have learned from them: lessons about my own capabilities and limitations, about the way people in other states and on different continents live, about language and cuisine and class and politics. The challenge now is to put all of those lessons to work in the service of society. Just as protecting the Main Green from chaos and decay demands hard work, so too will constructing the future to which we aspire require great sacrifice.

As we look beyond College Hill, the task before us is made even more daunting by the fact that we will no longer be tethered to Brown. When we first marched through the Van Wickle Gates at Convocation, it was as if we were sketching the first line on a map of our undergraduate journeys. During our four or more years here, we have filled in this map, sometimes hesitantly, often boldly. As we pass through the Van Wickle Gates once more, we may feel as if we no longer need this map that we have so meticulously drawn.

But the personalized Brown geographies we have created will never be obsolete — we are merely turning to a blank page in our atlas. From the Main Green we will travel to San Francisco and Cape Town and Hong Kong and our hometowns and as-yet-unknown destinations. We will chart new maps. And surely, from time to time, we will flip back to the page labeled Brown, to reminisce and celebrate the special place to which we belong and to which we owe the unique privilege of serving the wider world.