Sitting at a table in the College Hill Cafe Thursday evening, catching up with an old friend, Lauren Kolodny's '08 businesslike attire was the only thing that made her seem the least bit out of place. Anyone who saw Kolodny around campus last week might be forgiven for assuming she was a current student, maybe on her way to interview for a job or an internship.
In fact, that's kind of the idea.
Less than a year after she attended her last class on College Hill, Kolodny was tapped to become Brown's first official "young alumni trustee," a role she assumed in the fall. She was in town this weekend for the second time as a member of the Corporation, rubbing shoulders with some of Brown's most powerful and well-connected alums as the University's highest governing body reviewed budgets, set tuition increases and heard reports from top administrators.
Kolodny, 24, is not exactly new to this world. She was an active member of the Undergraduate Council of Students during her time at Brown and interacted regularly with administrators and Corporation members, first as UCS's Corporation liaison and later as its vice president. But serving on the board is still heady stuff — not many twenty-somethings can say that Ruth Simmons reports directly to them, after all. Was she intimidated?
"Not intimidated," Kolodny said. "Impressed."
"Obviously I was a little nervous coming into it," she said. "But they were really welcoming, everyone was so welcoming, and so receptive, and really excited about having a young alum on the Corporation and getting that perspective."
Kolodny has been "very, very, very warmly received by the Corporation, both for who she is and what she has to contribute," said Chancellor Thomas Tisch '76 P'07, who was actively involved in creating the young alumni trustee position and choosing Kolodny to fill it.
Kolodny's appointment is part of a larger effort undertaken by the Corporation under Tisch's leadership to temper its reputation for opacity and any sense that its members — almost all of whom graduated at least two decades ago — are far removed from the concerns of student life.
Though she is the first young alumni trustee, the Corporation intends to add more soon, said Tisch.
But, for now, Kolodny is the sole young alum charged with injecting that youthful perspective and representing the student body's interests. It's a big responsibility and a "tremendous opportunity," she said.
"I don't mind feeling like I'm the young one," Kolodny said. "I'm fine with that. I think that's kind of cool."
"What I care about is being respected and being taken seriously," she added. "So far, I am."
‘A trustee as anyone else is'
It was 2 a.m. last April, and Kolodny was on a bus headed for a whitewater rafting expedition on the Ganges River when she got word — by way of an e-mail from Tisch — that the Corporation wanted her to fill the position.
Kolodny, who spent 2009 living and working in New Delhi to promote solar energy for the Clinton Climate Foundation, knew of the campaign to create such a position through her work on UCS, but she said she had no idea she was being considered for it. She spoke to Tisch by phone a few days later and accepted the job.
She was "thrilled" and "incredibly honored" by the appointment, she said.
Now that she's stepped into the role, she said she was struck by how welcoming Corporation members were right off the bat.
"Of course, there's going to be a level of, am I kind of a token member?" Kolodny said. "But no, I've been told time and time again that I'm a trustee as anyone else is."
"I was surprised how I often I was called upon to answer questions about different things," she added, and even Simmons reached out to her several times in the first meeting.
"She'd be like, ‘Students are kind of feeling like this — wait, Lauren, is this how students are feeling?'" Kolodny said.
Though Kolodny's first visit was something of a whirlwind — she flew back from India for her first Corporation meeting in October, diving straight into meetings fresh off a 24-hour journey and thoroughly jet-lagged, she said — she arrived on campus a day early this time around and spent much of Wednesday and Thursday meeting with students and professors.
(That old friend in the bookstore cafe? UCS President Clay Wertheimer '10. Kolodny said the conversation was about half business and half a chance to catch up.)
Though embodying the full perspective of the student body in a single person is a tall order, Kolodny said she's trying hard to listen to others and gauge the campus mood in order to represent students' views faithfully. She noted that she has experience with that "same process" from her time on UCS.
"You get a sense of where the campus is leaning," she said. "I think I'm good at hearing that."
She intends to strike a balance between being a voice of student opinion more broadly and advocating for issues she cares about and has experience with personally, she said.
At the Corporation's meeting this weekend, Tisch said, Kolodny offered her take on expanding Brown's student body with more transfer students to bring in new revenue.
Kolodny, a San Diego native who transferred to Brown from the University of California at Los Angeles before sophomore year, stressed the importance of "being sure that we had sufficient support and services for transfer students, particularly around advice and counseling," Tisch said. "The fact that Lauren could speak to those as someone who was a transfer student at Brown was very helpful."
Kolodny, who spearheaded the "Brown is Green" effort to encourage closer collaboration among environmental advocates on campus, said she hopes to use her position on the Corporation to continue promoting environmental awareness and collaboration.
The international relations concentrator launched a nonprofit to provide alternative-fuel cooking stoves to women in rural Tanzania while at Brown, and she said she is interested in promoting entrepreneurship while on the Corporation.
Coming full circle
Professors and others who knew her at Brown said Kolodny is well-suited to hold her own on the Corporation.
Clinical Professor of Engineering Josef Mittlemann, who taught Kolodny in ENGN 1930F: "Entrepreneurship and Good Work" during her last semester on campus, said Kolodny is "able to think on both sides of an issue" and has a "full complement of social skills as well as intellectual skills" that she can use to "argue convincingly for those things that she believes in."
Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine, who also worked with Kolodny, praised her as "determined" and "willing to think for herself."
"She'll earn the trust and respect of people quickly," he said, calling her "gracious and sensitive."
Melea Atkins '10, a UCS representative who worked with Kolodny when she was at Brown and spearheaded UCS's effort to lobby for a young alum on the Corporation, said Kolodny is well-suited for the role.
Because of her experiences on UCS, "Lauren knew what she was getting into a lot better than anyone else in her position could have," Atkins said.
"She's really proactive about making sure that she gets student input," she added.
Tisch echoed many of those qualities in explaining why the Corporation tapped her to pioneer the young alumni trustee role. Corporation members' familiarity with her work on UCS made them comfortable selecting her, he said.
"She clearly has a very collegial way of working with others," he said. "She's very balanced and a good listener."
He and other Corporation members have been pleased with the role she's played in her first two meetings, he said.
"There's been just excitement about what it does to our deliberation," he said. "She has helped to solidify the im
portance of the position for the Corporation."
A two-way bridge
Having recent graduates on the Corporation is an important part of the effort to ground the Corporation's discussions in a better understanding of how students and young alums see the University, Tisch said, a goal Kolodny shares. But Kolodny sees her role as twofold — she wants to "demystify" the Corporation for students as well.
"If I am going to be a bridge here, I need to be a bridge for the students, but I should also do the opposite," she said. "I want to help students understand how they can better be heard by Corporation members, because I think they're willing to listen when students take the right avenues."
The Corporation is not the shadowy body that some perceive it to be, she said. The light and open atmosphere of the meetings surprised her.
"There's just this really nice rapport," she said. "You can tell that people really like each other, that they're friends. People are making jokes all the time — not all the time, but they're making jokes."
"It feels a lot more casual — it's not stuffy and pretentious," she said. "It's people who care about something, who are sitting around trying to figure out how to make it work the best it possibly can."
That's an atmosphere she's glad to be a part of, even if, for now, she's the junior of everyone else in the room by more than a decade.