This story is the third in a three-part series about socioeconomic status at Brown. The series, through interviews with five students, examines the way socioeconomic status shapes students’ relationships to Brown in three stages: the application process, adjusting to life on campus and going back home after living and studying here.
This story chronicles how being at Brown has affected life at home, specifically in the way students are perceived in and perceive their hometowns, their relationships with their parents and their plans for life post-graduation.
Seeing home in a new light
“College as a whole just changes you, and then you go back, and then your parents slowly start realizing that you’re not the same person that you were when you left the house and were living in the house 24/7,” said Chinenye Uduji ’19, a sophomore from Philadelphia.
During Molly Sandstrom’s ’17 freshman year, Fox News journalist Jesse Watters asked her if her parents knew that she was participating in Nudity in the Upspace. She looked into the camera and said, “I guess they know now!”
In truth, Sandstrom told her parents about her decision to participate in Nudity Week. But she wasn’t fully prepared for how shocked her community back home in Lindstrom, Minnesota would be when watching the broadcast.
“Of course I wanted to be interviewed,” she said, explaining that she was keen on presenting herself as a liberal Brown student who questioned stereotypes about body image. “As soon as I finished the interview, I was so proud. But I felt a sinking feeling afterwards.”
While Sandstrom entered college eager to experience an environment more diverse and progressive than the small town in which she grew up, Kimberly Davila ’20 was shocked to see just how different Brown is from her community back home in Montebello, California.
“Back in my community, there’s gangs, and there’s drug dealing on the street. When people die, they put flowers on the side of the street and candles. That has become very normal to me,” she said.
Hearing about other Brown students’ pre-college experiences led Davila to see these elements of her childhood environment in a new light. “Why is that I’ve come to see this as normal, and kids in my community have come to see this as normal when it really shouldn’t be normalized that way?” she said. “Why do people in my community have to take that path?”
These reflections illuminated for Davila the disparities between the resources with which she grew up and those some families of Brown students command, she said.
Ahmed Ashour ’19 often edits his accounts of his experiences at Brown when talking to his parents in Bahrain. Ashour has not told his parents that he has started drinking, has woman friends or friends who do not identify with the gender binary at all.
His sexuality is also a secret from his parents; while at Brown, Ashour began to explore his sexuality in the supportive environments of his a cappella group and his theater troupe.
Sandstrom, too, grappled with defining her sexuality in college but felt empowered to “come out” as queer in a long Facebook post while in college. She also texted her parents, but it felt very “low stakes,” she said. “I had a good sense my family wouldn’t disown me and that my social circles wouldn’t change. I wonder if it would have (been) more high stakes if I had stayed back home and was still connected to my social network,” she added.
“It sort of sucks that I’m not forward about it or confronting this not-accepting culture I’m from,” Ashour said. “But for the very short time I’m back home, for me, I just want to avoid being asked like five million questions about one thing and it spiraling into a huge conflict. I just want to enjoy the three weeks, four weeks I’m there.”
Being openly gay in Bahrain is not a possibility, Ashour said, but the realities of being a gay man in his country do not necessarily rule out his return, he added. While he always thought he would like to work in the United States after graduation, his future here feels uncertain under a Donald Trump presidency. “It was a moment of reflection for me, just thinking about my future in this country as a Middle Easterner and if I can ever feel truly, truly welcomed in this society.”
Parents, politics and the election
Before the election, Charlotte May ’17 met Trump at a TIME Magazine gala to which her mother had been invited. May’s mother, a TIME Magazine editor, does not vote in elections in order to remain nonpartisan.
May has been judged by her mother in the past for some of her political views, which would be considered politically incorrect by Brown standards, she said. May laments the pressure she feels at Brown to espouse positions that adhere to predominating campus views.
“I hit all the marks of privilege, so anything I say will come out as racist or any of the ‘isms’ or ‘ists’ because my opinions will not necessarily line up completely” with the apparent consensus at Brown about what constitutes an acceptable opinion. “As the oppressor, I therefore have no right to an opinion,” she said.
On the other hand, she feels much more comfortable sharing her opinions with family back home, where she feels that her racial and socioeconomic privileges do not impede her ability to participate in conversation. “In my family, everyone grew up together, but everyone has a different point of view. And we’re all able to engage and discuss on the same playing field. No one can claim, ‘Oh, your opinion is invalid because I’ve experienced this and that.’”
For Sandstrom, discussing politics with her family can be a challenge after being steeped in Brown’s rhetoric of social change. “My parents joke that they cancel each other out. My dad leans conservatively, and my mother leans liberally,” Sandstrom said. “Two years ago, I got into a big fight with my parents because I was being too academic and not willing to listen to them. But we’ve had some good conversations since.”
Talking to her mother about offensive statements she has made is particularly difficult because she is so well-intentioned, Sandstrom said. “Sure, my parents aren’t overt racists, but the way they talk about race is probably not so great. It’s hard to know how to name that and talk about it in a way that is productive,” she said.
“Through the work I do, I don’t necessarily believe in creating space for those who don’t know or hold beliefs that are racist or sexist,” she said. But she recognizes the need to “meet people where they’re at.”
The problematic political stances of her family and how Sandstrom addresses them can be difficult to discuss on campus as well. She sometimes feels torn between condemning her parents’ political views in stark terms and being lenient. These issues are “tough to talk about at home, tough to talk about here,” she said.
While watching the second presidential debate, Sandstrom became increasingly uncomfortable with the way some of the Brown students around her reduced Trump and his supporters to a joke, she said. In part, she traced her discomfort to the fact that she was not sure if her father planned to vote for Trump.
“I wouldn’t deny that Trump embodies many things I’m concerned about, like racism and sexism and all that. But making supporters into a joke writes off the South, the Midwest, poor rural communities,” she said. “Especially from a bastion of privilege like the Ivy League, to turn people into a joke furthers class divides. It makes people like my father a joke, and it fails to recognize some of the concerns that someone like my father might have.”
Fitting in with friends
After beginning college, some of the students felt distant from their friends back home.
When Ashour goes back to Bahrain, he is unable to openly discuss some topics, such as social justice issues, like he does on campus. Additionally, he left Bahrain in the middle of his high school career and has lost touch with his friends back home because he left so long ago, he added.
Uduji feels he has personally changed more than some of his high school friends who stayed in Philadelphia for college, he said. He has not communicated much with his friends from home since he came to campus, he added.
Davila also noted differences with some friends who attend college closer to home. The class privilege and number of students from prep schools at Brown are greater than what her friends encounter at some of the University of California schools, she said.
Davila was one of the very few students who left the state from her high school. Before she had even come to campus this fall for her first semester, one of her friends asked: “Do you think you’re better than us now because you go to Brown?” She predicts she will not talk about campus much to her friends over winter break.
As students think about their professional plans for life after Brown, class continues to shape the career paths they are interested in pursuing and the urgency they feel about finding work.
May has already secured a job in New York City at Goldman Sachs. She will be working at Goldman Sachs’ office of corporate engagement, rather than the investment banking branch of the bank. She was never “worried” about finding a job, acknowledging that her family is “well-connected.”
Some feel pressure to secure work immediately after graduation.
While some of Sandstrom’s friends have suggested taking a gap year between graduation and entering the workforce, that is not a financial possibility for her, she said.
For a financial cushion between graduation and her first paycheck, Sandstrom is diverting money from the five jobs she currently works to save for a couple months’ rent, she said.
As a first-year, Davila already has a vision for her plans in 2020.
She intends to attend law school and possibly run for office to address some of the difficulties in her community that she has come to understand differently since arriving at Brown, she said. With a Brown degree and access to the University’s resources, she will have the power to increase opportunities for people back home, she added.
Though her experience at Brown has illuminated just how great the disparity is between the resources in her hometown and those in particularly wealthy circles, Davila has become “very optimistic about things.”