Trying togetherness

Redefining community for a diverse and digital Brown

By
Senior Reporter
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2017

If the term community implies shared characteristics, values or behaviors, speaking of “the Brown community” today may be an exercise more fraught than ever before.

The Brown community has never been more diverse. Need-blind domestic admission began with the class of 2007; the demographics of this year’s graduating class reflect the advances of 11 admission cycles without preference for wealthy applicants.

In addition to increased diversity, this year’s graduating class, one of the last of the media’s much mused-upon millennial generation, grew up with social media. Today’s students grew up in online communities unbound by ties of place, exacerbating the difficulty of 1,500 people coming together for college to form a cohesive social unit.

Along with the challenges of the times, Brown has prided itself on an ethos of hyper-individuality since at least the advent of the New Curriculum in the late 1960s. Brown, famous for the open curriculum, is a place where talented students from around the world convene to be the architects of their own educations; it is a place without universal requirements where no single experience other than the fact of living on campus for a few years binds the student body together.

When administrators speak of “the Brown community” in those emails that pop up in all undergraduates’ inboxes, various members of that community understand different things by the term. Others see it as a fantasy.

Defining community

President Christina Paxson P’19 sees a campus-wide community as manifesting through mutual empathy and respect among all members of the Brown community, not necessarily through universal agreement on issues or time spent together.

“We’re not trying to maintain a superficial politeness on campus” by asking community members to withhold their opinions or differences in conversation, Paxson said.

Mary Grace Almandrez, assistant vice president and dean of students, said administrators detect a spirit of community on campus in peer mentoring groups such as the Meiklejohn program and the Residential Peer Leader program as well as in supportive centers such as the First-Generation Low-Income Center.

“There’s an ethic of care that isn’t found in a lot of places and that is particularly strong here,” she said.

Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain of the University, noted the sense of community that emerges during events like Spring Weekend, when a “wonderful manifestation of people” appears on the Main Green. She also pointed to the return of alums for Commencement and reunion weekends year after year.

Moments like those “offer a sense that we’re all (part of) Brown,” said MaryLou McMillan, assistant vice president for campus life.

But administrators also noted that outside of these large formal events and structures, there are disparate communities of students that do not necessarily interact or agree with one another on what can be divisive and deeply personal issues. At the same time, they feel those differences strengthen Brown.

“Sometimes our sense of belonging can be grounded more in a cohort or intra-community frame, but that doesn’t have to compete with or detract from a larger or shared sense of a Brown community. In fact, it can make it more meaningful,” wrote Eric Estes, vice president for campus life and student services, in a follow-up email to The Herald.

After four years at Brown, seniors expressed familiarity with the divisions among small communities that can leave a broader sense of campus-wide community elusive. This lack of a broader sense of community can make forging strong relationships with other students challenging.

Oksana Goretaya ’17, co-captain of the women’s rugby team, said that at Brown, “We focus a lot on our differences,” which can make identifying a campus-wide sense of community difficult.

Mike Petro ’17, a member of the Brown/RISD Catholic Community, said the most common complaint among the group’s students is a feeling that “everyone was hanging out without them.”

Petro said a solid community of people with whom to spend his time never fully materialized in his years at Brown.

“It’s hard to say there’s a strong community (on campus) when I feel isolated.”

Building community

Seniors said their first weeks at Brown were critical in shaping their initial communities. All first-year students are placed in first-year-only residence halls, a policy that helps the Office of Residential Life cater to the needs of first-year students, said Kate Tompkins, associate director for programs in ResLife.

Petro noted that the physical layout of his first-year dorm, Emery-Woolley Hall, posed obstacles to creating community. His floor did not have a lounge, leaving students to hang out in hallways or cramped dorm rooms.

“The best community forms when people have a place to go,” Petro said. “Central places provide ways of making low-cost spaces of interaction, because if I’m going to a place, and you’re going to that place, we have the same expectations.”

Petro found that not having a central social space greatly contributed to Catholic students’ struggles to build community, and he joined Alpha Delta Phi in search of a residential community.

Noah Fitzgerel ’17, who served as president of Brown/RISD Hillel in 2016, agreed that it is a “privilege to have designated space to make one’s home.”

Fitzgerel said having a central building dedicated to Jewish life is important for students “who want to feel like they can identify a Jewish space on campus.”

Extra-curricular organizations also play a large part in shaping how engaged students feel with the Brown community. Gaby Gonzalez ’17 feels that much of her not having a sense of community at Brown is a “function of not finding the right extra-curriculars.”

Kelly Conway ’17, president of Brown Republicans, said that in her first year at Brown, she did not feel like she fit into the culture and community on campus. She took it upon herself to become politically active, and “that’s when I realized that I did have a place in the community,” she said.

Being engaged with Brown Republicans gave Conway “a sense of empowerment socially” in a politically active environment, and it provided her a way to contribute to campus discourse.

While on a small scale students emphasized day-to-day activities as integral to building community, administrators noted that on a larger scale the University deploys a variety of coordinated strategies to engage students, staff members and faculty members in attempts to foster empathy and respect across boundaries of identity and opinion.

Almandrez and Estes host a Sunday night dinner program with various students, and Estes also invites various student groups to his home for dinners. Paxson also meets with students during lunches and at events.

“I hope that builds a sense of community, for students to know that they have a president who actually likes them and wants to be accessible,” Paxson said.

Students expressed ambivalence as to whether a perceived lack of community on campus is an institutional issue or simply a feature of campus life.

Gonzalez used to think that her isolation was a “me problem.”

“I don’t tend to blame the institution, but when I do talk to other students, they say there are a lot of other students who feel the same way,” she said.

“There’s a false perception of vulnerability on campus. People are really open to talking about their political views, which makes them seem vulnerable, but people are holding back on how they’re really doing,” which inhibits creating authentic connections, Gonzalez said.

Signs of the times

Petro noted that today’s technological norms make it very easy not to “enlist” in in-person communication and community-building by using various social platforms and texting to stay in touch with friends off campus.

“It’s easy to check into low-grade digital relationships instead of having to check into the challenging but maybe more directly rewarding relationships onsight on campus,” he said.

While social media provides a great method to stay in touch with people, it is “pretty individualistic,” Petro added. “I always find that it’s hard to feel like you’re a part of something on social media.”

Fitzgerel said that, on the contrary, social media can bring students into contact with people they may not see on campus on a regular basis.

Connecting online is “incredibly important to (building) solidarity and community,” Fitzgerel said.

As social media has shaped this year’s class more than any before it, the class of 2017’s four years at Brown have been influenced by an intense political atmosphere. In the class’ second month on campus, a group of protesters effectively shut down a speech by former New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly, citing Kelly’s championing of stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately targeted people of color.

The incident alerted both students and administrators to a feeling among many that steps needed to be taken to make Brown more inclusive as it was becoming more diverse. Following years saw the release of the University’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, a $165 million effort to, among other goals, make all members of the campus community feel more included.

Conway said the Kelly incident made her “acutely aware that there were a lot of people (on campus) who think differently” from herself and other members of Brown Republicans. In the immediate aftermath, she and other members of the club “treaded a lot more lightly” in expressing what could be controversial views on campus, but they also realized “there was a lot of room to make an impact” in terms of increasing representation of conservative viewpoints in campus discourse.

Conway agreed that students should not be expected to respond to degrading comments civilly. But she also said that in political conversations, students sometimes “misdirect” their anger, refusing to listen to different arguments due to a misconception of conservative ideals as monolithic.

Fitzgerel said that in his time at Brown members of his class have “become more critical — in a positive way — about the sorts of programming that centers on campus” plan and promote, as well as “the sort of voices that we choose to elevate and the sorts of conversations we choose to center.”

Bringing together disparate groups

After events that impact specific groups of students, such as the flag vandalism on Veterans Day in 2016 or the cancellation of the Janet Mock lecture last spring, Paxson and other administrators work with and listen to the students affected.

Those events often encourage people to reach out to administrators and ask that the University implement policies to ensure certain behaviors do not recur, Paxson said.

But those situations pose a question of “what should be governed by rules and what should be governed by norms,” Paxson said. The flag vandalism was a policy violation, so the appropriate disciplinary measures were taken. The Janet Mock incident was the result of free petitioning. The University can only model the type of behavior in which it would like students to engage, Paxson said.

“It’s also the responsibility of students to create that sense of community,” she said.

Differences of opinion do not foreclose the possibility of a sense of campus-wide community, Fitzgerel said.

“Community is about a mutual commitment to one another. We see community come together to memorialize people at vigils and in the classroom, when professors invite students to dinner,” Fitzgerel said. “Students do expect and accord each other a certain sense of empathy and respect.”

After the election, Conway met with Paxson, and they discussed the “assumption that no one on campus could be a Trump supporter, much less think about being one.” Conway said, “It was a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ — and the entire campus was the ‘us.’ There was no in between.”

But Conway also noted that over the last few months, “people have become a lot more engaged and open to listening to different kinds of dialogue.”

Petro feels students do not place enough value on deliberately fostering a sense of community on campus.

“Community is its own reward. You’re not going to get something on your resume or hear a great show by going to a coffee hour,” Petro said.

Goretaya agreed that creating a sense of campus-wide community is students’ responsibility and that community entails a sense of mutual respect and understanding. But she does not see that manifest at Brown, where she has experienced judgment repeatedly for being a varsity athlete and a religiously observant individual.

“It’s going to take more selfless action and more selfless fault,” Goretaya said.

Ultimately, Goretaya did find a home at Brown within the rugby team. As she struggled to adjust to the class privilege at Brown and being surrounded by the highest-achieving students in the country, she said rugby was “what kept me here.”

Conway said she chose Brown because she was “up for the challenge” of being in a place where she knew the majority of people would hold political opinions different than her own.

Using the opportunity of being in the classroom with people who think differently “to really think through what you believe in” is “the most valuable experience,” she said.

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