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The Bruno Brief: How Brown students are creating meaning while on leave away from College Hill

In this week’s episode of The Bruno Brief, we hear from students who decided to take leaves of absence from Brown in light of the pandemic about the semesters they’ve created for themselves instead. We talk to contributing writer Kashif Ansari ’24, who spoke to these students currently spread across the globe.



Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or listen via the RSS feed, and send us tips and feedback for the next episode: herald@browndailyherald.com. The Bruno Brief is produced in partnership with WBRU.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

I'm Corey Gelb-Bicknell, and you're listening to The Bruno Brief from The Brown Daily Herald and WBRU. Each week, we take you inside one of The Brown Daily Herald's top stories. While many students found themselves back on College Hill in the fall, others decided to avoid an unusual pandemic semester by taking a leave of absence. Some found themselves thousands of miles away from Providence, exploring new and old interests. This week, we hear from a few of those students. We are joined by Kashif Ansari, a contributing writer who covered this story. Kashif, thank you for joining us today.

Kashif Ansari 

Yeah, thank you guys for having me.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

So in reporting this story, did you get a sense of why so many people are taking leaves of absence this year?

Kashif Ansari 

Yeah, a lot of people expected that campus life would be a lot different this year from what normal life in Providence would be. And for that reason, they thought that that'd be a better use of their time, to preserve the four years of Brown education that they wanted and find other activities that they could be doing in this time off when life wouldn't be normal for anyone. As the summer went on and more news came out about the pandemic and when things would come back to normal, it became a lot more apparent that Brown would not be the same. And so a lot of them chose sometime between mid- or late summer that it would be best for them to just take this leave of absence.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

So how did you find the experience of reporting the story? Was it difficult to find sources since people who are taking leaves of absence are less connected to Brown?

Kashif Ansari 

It actually wasn't too difficult. We put posts on each of the classes’ Facebook pages, asking people who are taking gap years if they would be willing to do an interview with The Herald. And we got responses from quite a few people. Even though some Brown students maybe take the leave off, they still enjoy the small feeling of connection that they can have through something like an interview. A lot of the people that I interviewed attended Brown events, sometimes through Zoom, or they're still attending Brown clubs. So they're still very much in a way a part of their Brown community even if they're not necessarily taking classes.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

And how did Brown's decisions and timing in announcing their COVID safety plan and their three-semester model affect student decisions to take the fall or spring off?

Kashif Ansari 

For most of the summer, students didn't know how the pandemic would change Brown's plans for the academic year. Many students hadn't been told whether they would be allowed to live on campus in the fall until about mid-September, which was after the semester had actually started. And this kind of just increased the uncertainty some of the students had regarding what they'd be doing in the fall, and in the 2020-21 academic year. So that kind of led them to seek out other options for what they could possibly be doing. 

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

What are some of the students you spoke to doing on leave?

Kashif Ansari 

Well, they're across the edges of the globe. The first person that I talked to, her name is Dorrit. She's from LA, and in the fall, she did an internship with a production company. And then she went on to work in a mango farm in Colombia as a workaway project.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

Here's Dorrit.

Dorrit Corwin 

I had always wanted to go to Brown more than anything, and when that actually became a reality, I had the best freshman year ever, and was devastated to have to leave in March. And once I was sent home, I realized how short four years is. As time went on, especially over the summer, it kind of became increasingly obvious to me that if Brown was going to let students back for this year, it was going to be not a normal experience whatsoever. So, I figured if I could find myself some time, that's what I would do. During the fall semester, I had an internship, at a production company in LA, which was all remote, but it was really a great experience. I got to spend a lot of one-on-one time on Zooms with some of the managers who would ask me, "Well, why are you here? Like, what do you want to do ultimately?" And I would say, "I want to be a writer." And they were like, "Okay, so what are you writing?" And I think first semester was definitely a wake-up call for me, realizing that I have spent so much time telling people that I want to be a writer and so little time actually writing, and that's not to say that like now a semester later I've written a novel or something. But I definitely have tried to like spend more of my time doing that. 

At the end of first semester, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I worked at a Christmas tree lot in LA, which was like a gimmicky dream job of mine since I was in middle school. And I just like randomly applied to this Christmas tree lot. And so I was working 11-hour shifts. At points, it was miserable, but like it was so fun. And I met like the craziest group of people. And that's something like I never would have done otherwise. 

At the end of January, I came to Colombia with my friend Arianna. And we've been here for two weeks doing a workaway program. Workaway with something that was absolutely not on my radar before this gap year. But it's basically a database online where you can search any country and find people on farms, or they own bed and breakfasts. And they're looking for volunteers to come and work for them in exchange for free room and board. So we found this mango farm, two hours outside of Bogota, and we were like, "That sounds cool." So we're here. I, you know, I've said to so many people this year, "Being on leave has given me just such an interesting perspective." Because I've kind of been on this hamster wheel of education since elementary school, basically, where like, it's all I've known. And I've never stepped off to think about what I'm actually learning and what I want to do. And if I didn't love Brown as much as I do, I would be so tempted to not go back and just like, dive into whatever I want to pursue. But thankfully, I do love Brown. And that's the whole reason why I'm taking time off. And it was definitely the right decision for me. I think it's definitely been worth it and given me a lot of experiences and perspectives that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

I love the bird sounds in the background. Kashif, could you tell me about the group of three you spoke to?

Kashif Ansari 

Sabrina, Jack and Maggie, who are currently in Sun Valley, Idaho. They decided to take a hike for about a month in Colorado together. And they were just spending the time exploring nature, sightseeing, visiting the national parks and whatnot. And they just had a really nice bonding experience through all of that.

Sabrina Chwalek 

I'm Sabrina Chwalek.

Jack DiGiovanni 

And my name is Jack DiGiovanni.

Sabrina Chwalek 

Initially I was thinking about coming back to campus in the fall. I knew I didn't want to do remote. Even in the spring, once they were saying that sophomores could come back to campus, live in hotels or housing, I just decided that it wasn't worth it for me to lose out on my college experience.

Jack DiGiovanni 

Going into the fall, I had two main things that made my decision very easy. So I'm a student athlete, looking at the fall and the fact that there wasn't going to be competition, there wasn’t really going to be too much training happening. Another factor of what campus was like with single dorms, not being able to go to the dining hall and not being able to socialize, I don't want to almost waste time.

Sabrina Chwalek 

Over the summer, I was interning at the Nature Conservancy. And luckily, I had a fantastic boss who was able to turn my internship into a paid internship for the fall. So I was able to continue working remotely with them on some of their conservation work. And then also being able to still be a part of clubs at Brown was really awesome for me. And then I just started working as a personal assistant to the CEO at the Center for Applied Rationality. I've been really fortunate to have Jack and Maggie. Since we all found that we're taking gap semesters, we were able to fly for a month in Colorado where we were able to essentially hike all around Colorado and just explore and do something that we probably wouldn't have otherwise been able to do.

Jack DiGiovanni 

So I think it's been a lot of on-a-whim things. I think also just recognizing that we've been really, really lucky with all of the opportunities that come up for us to travel or do things together. We know people, or we know places where we can do that, and it's not as much of a financial or logistical strain. But I think that in itself is a huge privilege to be able to do that. I've been recognizing, wow, like we're super lucky to just even be able to have this opportunity to do something that isn't what a lot of other people are doing.

Sabrina Chwalek 

Jack and Maggie both lived in my freshman dorm, and I was decent friends with both of them. But we didn't hang out a lot. And then I hadn't talked to either of them, I think, for months, until I found out they're both on gap semesters. But then it kind of presented this really cool opportunity where we all found out. Even though we weren't even good friends at the moment, we just planned out this month of just hiking and seeing a bunch of beautiful places and national parks in Colorado. And then in the process now they're two of my closest friends at Brown. It really gives you time that you don't have at college to be introspective about what you want to do with your life and what you want to study. When you're at Brown, you're so caught up in the day-to-day business of classes and clubs that you don't really ever have time to actually stop and think, "How do I want to contribute to this world?"

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

Kashif, tell me about the last student you talked with.

Kashif Ansari 

Aaron from Prague? He got into a music program for foreign students at the Prague music conservatory because he really enjoys playing the cello. He actually was considering going to a music school instead of Brown after high school. So this was a really nice opportunity for him to experience that.

Aaron Gruen 

I decided about mid-August, so three weeks or so before the start of Brown. Initially, I was going to do Brown online, because I didn't want to go to the States. Then I found out about this program at the music conservatory here for foreign students, and that's when I made the decision to take the year off. Due to the COVID restrictions, they've essentially closed down the Conservatory, except for foreign students. So the foreign students that are there basically have the building for themselves. Also, because of COVID, there are only about 10 of us. So it's pretty nice. 

Something else I did over this year, I worked for about five months in total in an ICU in Munich, because I am a pre-med student at Brown. It was actually a bit overwhelming, because it's just as the name implies, it's very intense and high-pressure. So I did that in the spring. And then in the month of January, I worked there again when there was a spike in cases. In the spring, it was actually quite calm because the cases didn't surge as much as they expected. But then last month when I was there again, it was definitely more intense and stressful. They were short of staff and they had way more cases. In terms of the music, this whole year has shown me that being a musician, being a professional musician, is actually even harder. COVID kind of doesn't allow for there to be concerts, which is, you know, the major source of income for musicians. So I guess that's kind of a sad fact. But the experience at the hospital reinforced my interest in medicine. 

It was the best decision I've made.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell

All right, Kashif, thanks for being here. 

Kashif Ansari 

No problem, happy to come back.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell

In other news, the Ivy League announced Thursday that it will not hold any sport competitions or championships for the spring season due to the pandemic. There may be opportunities for teams to compete with other local colleges and universities later in the season, but no Ivy League teams will compete against each other in the spring.

This has been the Bruno Brief. Our show is produced by Livi Burdette, Ben Glickman and me. The Bruno Brief is an equal partnership between WBRU and The Brown Daily Herald. I'm Corey Gelb-Bicknell. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next week.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

____________________

Produced by: Olivia Burdette, Ben Glickman and Corey Gelb-Bicknell

Music: 

Denzel Sprak by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Slow Toe by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Bivly by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Felt Lining by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Special thanks to Emily Teng and Olivia Burdette for cover design.



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