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Columns, Opinions

Ugoji Nwanaji-Enwerem: Trailblazing as a brown girl at Brown

By
Guest Columnist
Saturday, May 23, 2020
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2020

I remember being wide-eyed and nervous. My stomach was in knots, yet my heart was warm and full of anticipation. My parents and I had decided to take a road trip from my home in North Carolina to Providence, Rhode Island for my college move-in. At the time, I was 17 years old, and I knew that this 785-mile journey was going to be life changing. I can still remember the traditional Nigerian music that my dad played from artists like Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe and the Oriental Brothers International Band. I began to wonder how so many of my norms, such as listening and jamming aloud to Nigerian music and speaking Igbo — my native language — would be viewed as “not so normal” with my transition into college. For this reason, the music we played during that car ride still resonates in my ears today whenever I think about my journey to move into Brown. 

When I arrived on campus, I participated in the pre-orientation program Excellence at Brown. While doing research for one of the program’s writing assignments, I found the following quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Emerson’s words served as a guiding mantra for my next four years as an undergraduate student. As a first-generation Nigerian American concentrator in STEM, I recognized quite early in my journey that my identity at this Ivy League institution, already fulfilled the notion of forging a new path on College Hill. I can recall being in many spaces, such as my organic chemistry lectures or my research assistantships, where I was one of few — if not the only — faces of color in these spaces. 

Despite the loneliness I felt in certain spaces at Brown, I found community through organizations such as the Modern African Dance Club, a collective that curates and performs dance pieces in public spaces to Nigerian music. These groups allowed me to raise awareness of and remain connected to my heritage while I pursued my biology concentration and scientific research. In doing so, I established a trail tailored to my identity at Brown. In addition, I contributed to a collective effort and a historic, ongoing story of students creating spaces for themselves and their culture on campus. By creating this space, we became trailblazers. As I approach my own graduation, I have come to appreciate all of the “not so normal” aspects of my life. The parts of our stories that appear rare at Brown create diversity, texture and beauty to who we are and to the world.

To me, trailblazing is an art form. It is how we discover paths to thrive in new spaces where only wilderness existed before. As we journey forward, we often have to move aside branches, or trim them back. We tramp down and push aside long grasses, we venture across rivers and streams and explore inner and outer landscapes. The uniqueness and diversity of all of our identities create room for us all to be trailblazers, which to me is a defining hallmark and strength of the class of 2020.

Each year I spent at Brown was full of unexpected surprises, but my senior year was particularly unconventional. I always viewed the moment of receiving my degree as a foreseen destination. But no one could have predicted the moment unfolding in such an unexpected climate, like a global pandemic. With the arrival of COVID-19, we cannot take the final steps of walking through the Van Wickle Gates and across the stage, shaking hands and exchanging hugs with our professors and loved ones in the May heat. Instead, our degrees will be mailed to our doorsteps. But this does not take away from the triumphs and progress we’ve accomplished throughout our time on campus, nor does this erase the beauty and completeness of the trails we forged at Brown.

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  1. Well written, coming to terms with origin and cultural heritage, and the challenges ahead while on academic pursuit. Good luck!

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