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Bursting the bubble

How Providence shapes the Brown experience

Arts & Culture Editor
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2017

True to the freethinking and amorphous spirit that distinguishes Brown’s academic atmosphere from others, no two Brown experiences are the same. Notwithstanding certain staple occurrences, such as navigating the vibrant Main Green on the way to class, making the initial acquaintance of roommates and neighbors and watching the vermillion Providence sunset blend into a navy sky, Brown students’ approaches to their four years here diverge in how they choose to interact not only with Brown but also with the Providence community. Grappling with the limitations and virtues of the Brown bubble, those who choose to venture past the Van Wickle Gates and off College Hill gain context and enrich their time in Providence.

The bubble

Superficially a product of geographic isolation, the Brown bubble begins to take shape for each class as students new to Providence hesitate to get off the Hill, said Lydia Chim ’17, community outreach officer for the Senior Class Board. More daring first-years wander to the seemingly distant hubs of Wickenden Street and Wayland Square, attend WaterFire and patronize restaurants, Chim added, but most stay on campus with little need to leave.

“Freshman year, my friends and I didn’t get out of the bubble much,” said Henry Richardson ’17. “It was easier to stay on College Hill — friends were here, food was here and no one had access to a car. Brown was new and exciting.”

“I really needed to feel ready as a student at Brown … before I was ready to go out and invest myself in other places,” said Charles Saylor ’17.

Instead of going off the Hill, many students frequent Thayer Street, which offers a variety of small businesses and local restaurants right off campus.

“As a freshman, you already had everything you needed right here,” said Admas Belay ’17.

After freshman year, Providence’s gastronomic tradition, enriched by the culinary expertise of Johnson and Wales University, becomes more accessible for those who go off meal plan, said Isabel van Paaschen ’17.

Students who live at Brown over the summer are particularly likely to engage with the local culinary scene, said Patrick Zhang ’17. “Not being caught up in the rush of the semester allows you to take the time to explore Providence much more,” Zhang said, citing Providence’s summer food truck festivals as a top local attraction.

As their time in Providence progresses, students wisen up to local deals offered by Providence businesses such as Rhode Island Food Fights, Restaurant Week and Federal Hill specials, said Belay and Richardson.

“By the time you are a senior, you start to feel more nostalgic knowing that you’re going to be leaving Brown and Providence so soon,” Chim said. “It makes me sad to think that I’m going to be leaving Brown, that I won’t know what the popular restaurants and bars here are. Knowing that time is running out encourages me and other upperclassmen to do more and explore more.”

Class Board has made a concerted effort to get more students to engage with local institutions through sponsored “senior nights,” Chim said. “Sponsoring a night with great deals at a bar or restaurant is a great way to reintroduce or introduce a Providence business that doesn’t typically interact with Brown students to the community.”

Extracurricular organizations run by students also push back against the Brown bubble by connecting students with local merchants.

As a sophomore, van Paaschen signed up for the student-run Brown Market Shares Program, which “connect(s) the Brown community with regional producers through affordable weekly shares of fresh, local and sustainable produce, bread, eggs, dairy and meat,” according to its website.

“Because you are receiving what’s in season, you have to get creative and know what is local to the area,” van Paaschen said, mentioning how one particularly harsh winter for New England farmers influenced the produce she received and made her more cognizant of her relationship to local communities.

An education in the city

Some students venture beyond Brown to synthesize real-world experiences with curricular learning. Though she had been to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum many times before, Charlotte Tisch ’17 first met conservator Ingrid Neuman while there with a class, AMST 1510: “Museum Collections and Collecting.”

“I was so inspired by Neuman’s work,” Tisch said. “Studying archaeology, the visit opened up a whole new world for me. I reached out to her to learn more about what she does. … I’ve been working there ever since.”

As an intern at the museum, Tisch has been involved in many local projects, including visiting graveyards and tracing ancestries to discover the identity of Kenneth Sully, whose likeness is captured in a plaster bust that was featured at the Providence Art Club’s “Making Her Mark” exhibition. With another class, ARCH 1900: “The Archaeology of College Hill,” Tisch has further contextualized her Brown experience within the history of Providence. She studied the history of Providence whaling and wrote a history of her current home on Angell Street.

“Providence has such a rich history,” Tisch said. “In the grand scheme of everything that has happened in this city, our experience is so small, but we get to share in its legacy.”

Lainie Rowland ’17, a former Herald opinions editor, got off the Hill to put her studies in public policy to the test.

“Working for local government has made me more aware of the fabric of the city and how people are working so hard to better the quality of life here,” said Rowland, who interned at City Hall for Brett Smiley, now chief of staff for Governor Gina Raimondo.

Working with Smiley, Rowland helped to “reevaluate the tangible tax in Providence (by) assessing alternatives that other cities employ,” Rowland said. “I knew I wanted to know more about municipal finance and work on the local level — you can’t take a class on how city hall works.”

“The project was very hands-on,” Rowland said. “You don’t really get to do that so much in your classes, and it gave me a different perspective coming back to the classroom.”

Local relationships

Through their engagement with Providence, students develop bonds with people in the local community.

Saylor highlighted his experience working as head coach for the co-ed varsity wrestling team at Esek Hopkins Middle School through the Beat the Streets program.

“It’s quite the dream job,” said Saylor, who has held the position since 2015. “The school had no varsity-level sports until Beat the Streets came along. Now the wrestling team has 40 kids wrestling.”

Saylor has seen his wrestlers graduate and go on to wrestle in high school. “I’ll always have something in Providence that isn’t related at all to Brown.”

Dayton Williams ’17 met Providence residents through his work as a community center language instructor.

Having experienced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina first-hand, Williams said, “Service has always been a large part of who I am.” Diving into teaching English as a second language, Williams developed a curriculum with a co-teacher tailored to the needs of adult first-generation Americans, helping his students pass their driver’s tests and perform effectively in interviews.

“Teaching is reciprocal,” Williams said. “It’s incredibly meaningful to share the experience with people 40 years your senior who just got to the United States and are looking to overcome structural barriers to their advancement.”

Williams has also worked as a financial fellow at the Capital Good Fund, a nonprofit micro-finance firm “geared towards providing financial literacy programming and low-interest loans,” Williams said. “I created relationships like I did teaching English, but these are more personal because you’re dealing with personal finance and personal information.”

Interacting with Providence residents unaffiliated with Brown provides context for the privilege involved in attending an Ivy League university.

“Most of us at Brown take for granted the financial comfort we have,” Williams said. “Most of us don’t have to work two jobs or have children to take care of or debts that seem insurmountable.”

As intake interns working for the Rhode Island Public Defender’s office at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute in Cranston, Ariadne Ellsworth ’17 and Sydney Calas ’17 interviewed recently arrested citizens who cannot afford a lawyer.

“Working in the criminal justice system is one of the best ways to get a pulse on the community,” Ellsworth said. “You are seeing underserved communities and the way elite lawyers and judges interact with members of that community.”

For Ellsworth and Calas, work in Providence put the Brown experience in a different light.

“Transitions between college life and the internship were the hardest,” Calas said. “Every day I would walk down the Hill to work, and at the end of the day I would walk up the Hill and leave that whole world behind.”

“In our Brown bubble, you imagine that the University is so central to Providence life,” Ellsworth said. “But you go out into the community and realize that it’s not necessarily relevant at all.”


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