Columns, Opinions

Maya Singh: Pondering the path ahead

By
Guest Columnist
Friday, May 24, 2019

When I first walked through the Van Wickle Gates three years ago, it was in the company of a much smaller, and perhaps more eclectic, group. As a transfer student, I crossed the threshold with folks who had called other universities their home, had served in the armed forces and had even worked as circus acrobats before continuing their education at Brown. Now approaching the gates again, I invite you to consider the trajectory you have chartered here, and where you hope to go next. This may seem daunting and full of unknowns, but Brown has taught us to embrace uncertainty and navigate our own discovery, no matter how meandering the path may be.

My story begins as a first-year student in a small liberal arts college in Maine. Thoroughly unprepared for my first New England winter, I resolved to leave my room only when absolutely necessary. Feeling both cabin-feverish and overwhelmed in the midst of Africana studies, chemistry, cognitive science and religious studies, I ventured out into the snowdrift to seek advice from a professor. I asked whether there was any way to combine the study of the human brain with Buddhist philosophy of the self (or rather, the absence of self). My professor, a Brown alum herself, then said three words: “Go to Brown.” Dodging sheets of ice on the walk home, my mind reeled. Later that evening, sitting in the dim light of my computer, I found the following description on Brown’s transfer page: “Transfers are people who are unwilling to settle. They are willing to do the extra work to get what they want. And they are willing to take the path less traveled to arrive at a better place.” As we prepare to leave and begin again in new communities, this feels particularly apropos. However long you have been here, in a sense, we are all going to be transfer students now. We are about to shift paradigms along with furniture. Let us note this transition.

So, how will you put in the extra work, and what paths are you willing to take to arrive at a better place? With a Brown degree in one hand and a five- (or ten-) year plan in the other, some of us know exactly what we want and are prepared to boldly set out to achieve it. For those of you with lucrative job offers, graduate school admission or meticulous travel plans, I wish you the best. For many of us, however, our futures are somewhat less settled — we are ambivalently waiting at the Providence Station platform, not quite sure which train to board, where we are going and what detours may lie ahead. Sylvia Plath aptly describes this sentiment in “The Bell Jar” — a paralyzing fear of all the possible futures, like tantalizing figs on branches of a tree, each beckoning in different directions.

As we have sped toward graduation, it has been difficult to focus on the paths around us stretching into the distance. As students, our value seems predicated on productivity. We have developed our own academic survival instincts to keep moving. I am in awe of my brilliant, bright-eyed friends who are musical and mathematical and read entire books in one morning before diving into problem sets, all while applying for jobs. With so much momentum, it takes a lot for us to come to a grinding halt. As Newton’s first law states, bodies in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by a force of equal and opposite magnitude. Sometimes, whether of our own volition or not, we come up against these unexpected forces. Our bodies change and age. Paradigms shift and fields of study transform. Governments shut down. In response, we find new inspiration; we gather to resist, advocate and elevate silenced voices. We form coalitions to support our graduate students. We put up fans on the steps of university buildings and fight for fair working conditions for those laboring in seen and unseen spaces on our campus.

Regardless of the force propelling you forward, I will wager that your trajectory will not be linear. Embracing the open curriculum and all it has to offer, Brown has taught us to embrace uncertainty in all forms. We have dropped classes (read: Organic Chemistry), changed concentrations and even made up our own avenues of study. Even with such freedom, we all have had our fair share of academic “what ifs” — if only I concentrated in computer science, spent more time off College Hill supporting local organizers and activists or taken a contemplative studies seminar on happiness. Perhaps then I would know what this whole life-after-college thing is all about. What is important to remember, though, is that many doors are still open. We still have plenty of opportunities, and for that reason, I am left with a feeling of optimism. Brown may be the first place to give us this freedom, but it is not something we have to leave at the Van Wickle Gates when we graduate.