Destin Sisemore: Beyond walls

Thursday, May 21, 2015
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2015

Some people friend-requested way too many people on Facebook before we all arrived on campus. I’m one of those people.

Every once in a while, a friend will admit that he or she or phe knew my name before I ever told them because I sent them a friend request on Facebook two months before I ever met them or because I posted in the “Brown University Class of 2015 – Admitted Students” group way too often. When I get called out for this, it’s a bit embarrassing. But I also take pride in these moments.

The way that I approached Brown is the same way I approached Facebook that summer: with my defenses down, with my mind and heart open to whomever and whatever I might find here.

When I reflect on my time at Brown, I can’t help but think back to my favorite Robert Frost poem. It’s called “Mending Wall,” and it begins with the line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

The speaker of the poem — we’ll call him Frost — and his neighbor have a wall separating their yards. Frost doesn’t like the wall, but his neighbor defends it vehemently. The neighbor says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost responds, “Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder if I could put a notion in his head: ‘Why do they make good neighbors?’”

This is a very Brown question. When we chose Brown, we chose to challenge convention, to ask why.

We chose to resist the instinct to wall out what we do not know or do not understand. Enabled by the open curriculum, we take courses that we never dreamed of taking in high school, we push ourselves and we discover passions we never knew we harbored.

Universities with a core curriculum pride themselves on providing students a set of common materials to discuss and debate. At Brown, we don’t need that. The beauty of Brown, and something that I will miss dearly, is the cross-pollination of ideas that I experience every day.

Today, “spring is the mischief in me,” and I wonder if I could put a notion in your head: The Brown community is one that does not stop at the literal walls and fences of this campus.

Two hundred fifty-one years of Brown — current students, alumni, faculty, staff, parents and friends of the University — have created a web that stretches across space and time, a legacy built not just for the privileged men who walked Brown’s halls in its conception, but for the ever-diversifying cohort of students that passes through the Van Wickle Gates each year.

Ten years ago, it would have been incredibly difficult for me and students like me to come to Brown. I am the first person in my family to go to college, and to be honest, Brown’s tuition is more money than my family makes in a year. The reason I’m here today is because a former member of our community broke down another type of wall.

Sidney Frank was a member of the Brown Class of 1942. After only a year here, he was forced to drop out because he could no longer afford tuition. Some 40 years later, Mr. Frank had become a billionaire. And in 2004, he granted Brown the single largest donation it has ever received: $100 million, to establish the Sidney E. Frank Scholarship. His hope was that no other student would have to forgo a Brown education due to economic constraint.

Frank said, “I know from my own experience what a difference Brown can make in a young person’s life. I’ve wanted to help more students find what I found — especially students who figured Brown was out of reach financially.”

Well if Mr. Frank were here today, I’d tell him that I did find what he found. I would tell him that my four years here have been the most transformative four years of my life.

Brown is not a place for walls, and it’s not a place for ceilings either.

When I left home, I promised that all of this time spent 1,000 miles away from my family would be worth it. That I would not only find an amazing community of scholars to learn and grow with, but that Brown could help me create real upward mobility for my family. As a first generation college student, I relied upon current students and Brown alumni for support and guidance throughout that process.

And when I start my job in Manhattan next year, I have to thank not only Sidney Frank, but the entire Brown community for helping me get there.

Good fences do not make good neighbors. Brown is not a place for walls.

Destin Sisemore will soon begin work at DigitasLBi in New York City. Apparently the one thing Brown did not teach him is how to avoid Northeast winters.

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