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Columns, Opinions

Dhruv Singh: Finding your people

By
Guest Columnist
Sunday, May 24, 2020
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2020

I am technically part of the class of 2019.5. But because I graduated a little early, I decided to spend spring semester on campus, remaining engaged in the communities I have come to love at Brown. I know this led to some surprises initially for those who ran into me in the Underground or at the GCB at a frequency that would be otherwise unsustainable with a full course load.

I had an untraditional journey through Brown. Now, I suppose, that is true for us all. We were drawn to College Hill by the freedom offered by the open curriculum, so it is no surprise that, looking back on these past four years, we have all taken drastically different paths to arrive at commencement today. That curriculum, designed by students half a century ago, transformed the academic experience at Brown to one that was student-centered. It offered — no, it insisted — that as students, we, as so many of us quoted in our college applications, were architects of our own education.

That responsibility and privilege created amazing results. Ask any member of the class of 2020 and they will surely recount an anecdote to you full of intellectual curiosity and serendipity. The collaboration, the creativity, the novel experiences will inspire you. But I want to argue today that there was something beyond our famous open curriculum that made Brown, and our time here, so wonderful. 

To explain, I have to retrace my 3.5ish years at Brown. For me, the freedom that was Brown initially made me feel anchorless. I was uninspired both inside and outside the classroom and was not very happy with who I was. Almost instinctively, I fell into insecurity and imposter syndrome, trying to imitate those whose combinations of affability, self-assuredness and generational privilege made them appear to glide through our early days at Brown. If our first year was a Keeney dorm party, they were crowd surfing and I was stuck in the corner trying not to get beer spilled on me.

That feeling was so intense that one chilly March morning, 15 minutes into Professor Friedberg’s Principles of Economics lecture, I did what I’m sure many of us did at some point. I stopped paying attention to price ceilings, closed my notebook and took out my laptop. But, instead of scrolling through Twitter or finding inventive ways to spend my Squad 2020 money, I opened the Common App and began a transfer application. Later that week, I completed my transfer application. Then I submitted it. Then I was accepted. Then I decided I was going to leave Brown and start somewhere new in the fall.

During the whole process, from asking TAs who barely knew me for letters of recommendation, to wandering into University Hall to get transfer forms signed, I was waiting for something that would convince me of my error. Some sudden, beautiful realization that Brown was my home. It never came. Sitting in my Wayland dorm overlooking the Main Green as spring finally arrived on campus, I began looking at dorms, classes, majors and clubs for my new school. 

But, as my presence here at Brown’s 252nd commencement exercises betrays, I did not leave. My dad is to thank for that because he gave me the following advice. He said: “Dhruv, always make your big life decisions one week in advance; then live that decision. By the end of the week, you will know if you’ve made the right choice.”

I did that, and when I woke up on May 26, 2018, the real deadline, I couldn’t go through with it. The hiccup was that I had been accepted into the Brown Outdoor Leadership Training program, which begins with a backpacking trip in the White Mountains before each fall semester. Throughout my first year, the thought of that trip had been one of the few things that felt profoundly right for me. And here I was, about to throw it away. That was the only reason I didn’t leave. 

I kid you not, the only reason I’m a graduate from Brown today rather than from that other school was the thought of five days in the woods with nine strangers. I told my dad it was because I thought opportunities for an International Relations concentrator were better at Brown. So he’s reading this for the first time, along with all of you. My friends tell me that I live my life too much like the hopelessly romantic main character in a rom-com. I will admit that in this instance, they were correct. Against all other signs, I pegged my happiness in college to the hope that these people I would meet in three months would change my life.

And they did. BOLT was the first space at Brown where I felt empowered to be myself. When I became a BOLT leader, I realized why. BOLT is a community built on being intentional, on making space for people to be themselves, on accepting whatever that looks like. I realized that what was missing my first year was not a lack of charisma or ability that made me inherently ill-suited to the freedom offered by Brown. What I was starved of was a community in which I felt supported, valued and loved. My BOLT family gave me a space to share myself with others and showed me what I was looking for in the other communities I would go on to find and build while at Brown. 

As our time at Brown comes to an end, I’ve found myself reminiscing with friends. In these moments, they let slip, that they too, in big ways and in small ways felt adrift at Brown. That they had felt profoundly lonely and alone. That is, until they found their people.

Perhaps that looked like leaving a sports team but stumbling upon a group of friends that felt custom-made for you, that was the key to making you feel at home.

Or it looked like discovering a student organization that felt more like a family, whose work filled you with hope.

Or maybe ResLife’s random processes brought you all together around a shared table.

Brown is a place where you are in charge of your own journey from day one. But I think in the rush of it all, sometimes we forget that does not mean we are ever alone. In fact, I think that only with our people could we accomplish any of the incredible feats made possible by our open curriculum. I think the designers of our open curriculum would agree that no intellectual risk, no novel endeavor, no challenge to the system is quite as scary when there are people beside you cheering you on. At Brown, I’ve learned there are always people to lean on, confide in and laugh with. 

When our semester was abruptly cut short and the University closed, many of you proved just that. You organized and mobilized for your people, sometimes from six feet away. You shared food, shared hand sanitizer, shared love, shared zoom calls, shared your homes with one another. With close friends, sure, but also with complete strangers with whom Brown was all you had in common. Beyond that, even, you thought of those with whom we share Providence as a home. The marginally housed, the food insecure, the under- or uninsured. You proved that “our people” extends far beyond those with an email ending in brown.edu.

Class of 2020, none of the magic happens without the people. That is the most important thing I have learned at Brown. The world after Brown puts us equally in charge of our own journey. Though we will all be far flung from College Hill, don’t think you are on this journey alone, either. Insist on finding your people wherever you are. Insist on being there for those who count you among their people, too. 

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