Teresa Tanzi may well have been the first-ever member of Brown's class of 2010, but she won't share the stage this weekend with her one-time classmates. In fact, she never even took a class with them.
When Tanzi first enrolled as a part-time student through Brown's Resumed Undergraduate Education program seven years ago, the plan called for her to graduate this weekend. But when the class was finally arriving on College Hill in 2006, Tanzi was headed the other direction, and she hasn't been back in class since.
Her reason for the unplanned leave? She was about to become a mother.
Tanzi and her husband planned the pregnancy but didn't account for its impact on her ability to continue her education. "I was just nauseated constantly. I couldn't read. I couldn't watch TV. I couldn't drive," said Tanzi, who lived in Narragansett at the time and commuted to Brown.
Though Tanzi expected to be "a bored mother," she found that her daughter, Delia Tanzi Buchbaum, provided "every ounce of structure imaginable and then some."
Tanzi didn't return to Brown after Delia's birth — she and her husband struggled to find high-quality child care that they could afford, and they couldn't shoulder her tuition costs on top of the costs of raising a baby.
Now, four years later, instead of graduating this May as she had planned, the public policy concentrator is learning about the reality of Rhode Island politics. She is vying against incumbent David Caprio to be the Democratic candidate for her district's state representative.
Tanzi, who lives in Wakefield, decided to enter the race last April. And in the time since, she's been surprised by the rewards of her new life as a public figure.
"It's definitely scary," Tanzi said. The first time she attended a town meeting in Narragansett, where she lived at the time, Tanzi wrote down her comments in full before she went up to speak. It's "amazing" how much her public speaking has improved since, she said.
Tanzi acknowledges that taking on Caprio, the brother of General Treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio, is a challenge. She has never held public office before, and she faces a long-time incumbent who has held office for over a decade and ran unopposed in 2000, 2004 and 2006.
But Tanzi, who casts herself as a David figure facing Goliath, finds "amazing motivation" in being the underdog.
Her husband called her "the insurgent," she said. "I loved that."
Tanzi wasn't discouraged by the long odds when she applied to Brown, either. "I didn't think about Ivy League, about my lack of pedigree," she said. "Having given it any thought, I wouldn't have even applied."
Tanzi attended a local community college in New Jersey after graduating from high school in 1989. She dropped out after two years, never earning her associate's degree.
"I didn't like being told what classes I had to take," she said.
After Tanzi moved to Rhode Island in 2000, she started to consider going back to school. She attended the University of Rhode Island for a year, "just to test the waters." She liked taking classes, but not URI's environment.
Then she found out about Brown and its open curriculum.
"I didn't even know it existed," Tanzi said. "It was literally what I had been waiting for."
Classes at Brown were a struggle for Tanzi, who had no computer skills at the time and didn't know how to type. She had to ask a classmate to teach her how to make a PowerPoint presentation. She felt "very much accepted" but at the same time knew she lacked the educational background and study skills of many of her classmates.
Tanzi plans to return to Brown in January 2011, no matter the outcome of the Democratic primary in the fall — and this time, she said, she won't be short on self-confidence.
"I don't think I'll have that problem again," she said. "I'm going to be a new person."