Columns

Agnes Chan: Insecurities

By
Guest Columnist
Friday, May 25, 2018
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2018

I distinctly remember the dread that filled me when I sat down to write my “Why Brown?” essay five years ago. Scattered across my desk were brochures collected from dozens of college fairs, and my browser was clogged with 20 or so tabs of college websites and student forums that I had been scouring for days. I had spent the past week in a state of frustration, juggling a series of questions that flickered endlessly in my mind. Why Northwestern? Why Penn? Why Tufts? And now, Why Brown?

The entire idea of “college” had obscured into a huge blur. My pessimistic and easily homesick high-school-self saw college as just another four years of school — an in-between phase before entering into the real world  — and, unlike many of my friends, I never grew up having a dream school of any sort. 

At some point, all the “big name” American schools began to evoke the same array of images in my mind: sprawling patches of grass, ivy-clad brick buildings lined up adjacently, students lounging outdoors playing frisbee, spacious cafeterias with American buffets of fries and burgers.

My distinct lack of creativity and disillusionment with the entire application process inevitably shone through in my 200-word “Why Brown?” essay. Like most Brown applicants, I had thought it a wise idea to detail my enthusiasm about the open curriculum and my excitement toward unparalleled academic freedom. Looking back, I feel freshly embarrassed about how little I knew about Brown at the time.  

On decision day, I shared with my sister my concerns that Brown might not be the right place for me. I had concluded from a cursory Google “Things to Do in Providence” search that transitioning from Hong Kong to Providence would be like moving into a rural village, and I had also begun to question if I was mentally ready for the kind of independence that Brown students all seemed to effortlessly embody. A rising junior at Penn at the time, she assured me, “Don’t worry. You’ll end up wherever you belong.” I wondered if that would be true. 

I arrived on College Hill with three overweight suitcases and a sinking feeling of uncertainty about what life at Brown would be like. Fall semester only increased my insecurities. When shopping period came, friends and acquaintances alike gushed about shopping more than 20 classes. Far from the much-advertised imagery of basking in the unparalleled freedom of the open curriculum, I found myself slumped in front of my laptop, staring blankly at the three classes in my cart and feeling pathetically stressed about not being the daring and experimental student that Brown has long prided itself on. 

These questions resurfaced when in my comparative literature first-year-seminar, all the students in the class spoke with a kind of confidence and clarity I found I could not imitate. I worried incessantly about whether I could ever muster the courage to add my voice to this class.

Even little things like language exacerbated feelings of foreignness. When I asked a girl in my unit where the rubbish bin was and she replied with a laugh, “Where are you from? You mean the trash can?” When a girl shot me a confused look when I asked her where the lift was. And, unforgettably, when I taught a creative art class at D’Abate Elementary School, and a first grader asked me, “Do you speak like this at home? Ching-chong-ling-long?”

But Brown has really grown on me since the anxious early moments of freshman fall, and looking back, it is the exciting moments of growth and self-discovery that define my time here. I can’t put my finger on a specific time when I began to feel a true sense of belonging on College Hill, but it might have been when I got my first byline at The Herald for a story on the homeless population in Providence, or when, after a month of tirelessly conducting interviews, I finally completed a lengthy feature on police violence in the city. Or it might have been in an interesting politics lecture, or in a heated discussion in a religious studies seminar. Or it might have even been at a moment much less monumental but memorable nonetheless — a run to Blackstone Park or a walk on the Main Green.

Somewhere between Chicken Finger Fridays and sophomore year Waterfires, and somewhere between sifting through the subtleties of Ice Palace and Beloved in Rites of Passage, I felt both relieved and grateful to have found a place like Brown where I could be myself, carve my own path, and discover what I love. 

Here, as I sit in my apartment, the walk through Van Wickle Gates is barely two weeks away, and the prospect of embarking on full-fledged adult life is far too close for comfort. As I walk through the gates I know I will be again filled with insecurities about what life off College Hill will bring. But at the same time I know I feel deeply lucky to have discovered a sense of belonging defined by the people I brunch with on Sundays and line up with for Free Cone Day, the books I complain about reading for class but secretly love, the familiar strangers I share awkward smiles with on Thayer … a sense of belonging to Brown.