On this week’s episode of The Bruno Brief, producer Katy Pickens explores how the pandemic has impacted knowledge of traditions among students. She spoke to sophomores and first-years, many of whom still don’t feel connected to campus culture, and reflected on how her own knowledge of campus tradition has been shaped by the pandemic.
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Welcome back to The Bruno Brief, from The Brown Daily Herald and WBRU. I'm Livi Burdette. So, I'm here in the studio with Herald senior staff writer, Bruno Brief producer and generally busy sophomore, Katy Pickens. Katy, you started writing a story for The Herald's Fall Guide. It's a very big deal. And you were writing about Brown traditions, right?
I was. And what was interesting is that most of the people I talked to knew about Brown traditions — so people would talk about the Naked Donut Run or the Midnight Organ Recitals — but hadn't actually experienced them firsthand. The one area of dissonance that really came to define this article was the subject of what to call the Vartan Gregorian Quad. If you ask anyone in the class of 2024, odds are they're gonna say it's called Greg.
Katy Pickens (to Ruhma Khawaja)
Is it Greg or New Dorm?
It's Greg. I don't know why people are saying New Dorm. It makes me so mad.
Katy Pickens (to Lucas Washburn)
You know the dorm where Jo’s is located? What do you call that?
I call that New Dorm. But I've heard some younger people who said it was called Greg. I say New Dorm. That's what I think of it as.
Katy Pickens (to Hiro Cho)
And do you think it's called New Dorm or it's called Greg?
Katy Pickens (to Hiro Cho)
Because it's New Dorm. Like asking for a reason is just ... The fact that people are asking for a reason to call it New Dorm is an abomination.
Let's flash back to two years ago. Blueno is still sitting comfortably on the quad. And there was no pandemic. If you were to ask someone, anyone really, what they called the Vartan Gregorian Quad, they pretty much all said the same thing: New Dorm. And while we don't have any actual recordings or reporting on this, by all accounts, that's what it's been called since the dorm was built decades ago. Then there's the students who got here during the pandemic. For upperclassmen on campus, this fall has been a grand return to many of the locations and traditions that defined their experiences before the pandemic struck in March of 2020. Being back in person means being welcomed back to old buildings, old dining halls and seeing familiar faces. But for sophomores and first-years, everything is new.
Katy Pickens (to Joshua Silverman)
So do you feel like you're pretty connected to Brown's culture?
I think I will be soon. I think currently it's only been six weeks or something, so I'm very new here. I'm starting to become more connected over six weeks, but if I give it a couple months, I'll definitely be more connected.
That was Joshua Silverman, class of 2025. Even though Josh has only been here for just over six weeks, he knows one tradition: Don't step on the Pembroke seal. The tradition holds that any student that steps on it will either get pregnant or won't graduate. Every new class of first-years at Brown has to learn new traditions. But this year, they're not the only ones who are struggling with knowledge of campus culture.
I feel like with the pandemic and the situations caused by the pandemic I was not fully exposed to a lot of things on campus. That kind of puts me in a situation as a first-year on campus even though I am a sophomore.
That was Ruhma Khawaja, class of 2024.
This sophomore year, even now, I've been struggling to find buildings and really understand culture and what goes on on-campus. For my first year, they offered the organ recital virtually, but I didn't even attend that. Yeah, I don't think there have been any traditions that I've participated in other than — I guess now I'm about to experience Family Weekend.
She told me that she still, in some ways, feels like a first-year. And even cultural phenomena she does know about, she hasn't actually experienced. Take the Naked Donut Run, the tradition of naked people running through libraries during reading period to pass out pastries. Ruhma knows it exists, but she's never seen those naked people. She's never tasted those delicious donuts.
Katy Pickens (to Ruhma Khawaja)
Do you know about the Naked Donut Run?
Yes, I do know about the Naked Donut Run. Very sad that I couldn't witness that, but this semester maybe?
Others in the sophomore class said that they felt they were isolated from other class years. Here's sophomore Selena Sheth.
I feel like I feel connected to Brown's culture, but then there's also a disconnect between us and the other class years because I feel like the upperclassmen all know what's going on and they've been here before, and then the freshmen kind of got their own experience. And the class of 2024 is just kind of like its own little weird bubble because we were all here over the summer. So I kind of feel connected with the class of ’24, but not necessarily other classes.
Katy, you're a sophomore yourself. What was it like coming to campus in January, the depths of winter quarantine, and being new in a place where your goal is to make friends and get accustomed to this new place you’re living in?
So sophomores arrived on campus. And we had a brutal and very strict two week quarantine. Your only hope of really socializing was lingering in the bathroom to fill up your Brita filter, or accidentally going to get lunch at the Ratty at the same time as someone else. It was difficult for people to make friends. And when people did make friends, it was often not outside of their dorm. After a difficult spring, we entered the summer semester. It was mostly just the class of 2024 on campus, and it was difficult to make friends with seniors, juniors or anyone that would have known what Brown was like before the pandemic. As a result, we have our own weird little culture and don't necessarily know what traditions or what typical slang would be on campus.
I feel like that's made a really hard-to-ignore divide on campus, when different classes don't really know each other at all, or barely even speak the same language.
I actually talked to a Brown professor about this. Kate Mason, professor of Anthropology, co-founded the Pandemic Journaling Project, and has been tracking how people's lives have changed throughout the pandemic. She's done some really interesting work to see how a pandemic can change student life, campus culture and society at large.
There's institutional memory of how people did certain things, the traditions that people had handed down to other students. For some of them it's sort of been lost because there was just all this time lost in the middle and people graduated and didn't kind of pass it on to the next people. So there's this kind of hole in campus life that happened for a year and a half. And so people are left to kind of reconstruct what they thought life was like before, which might not actually be an exact reproduction. So there are gonna be certain shifts.
Every four years, a completely new set of students are on campus. So the institutional memory of Brown has always been pretty short. But the pandemic caused such a rapid shift, that the dissonance has been made more noticeable. Sam Wertheimer, a self described super senior and class of 2021.5, said that the campus feels notably different than it had before the pandemic.
I definitely feel like I missed out on my actual senior year. I'm lucky that I just happened to be taking time off of spring 2020. So I now have this like extra semester at the end. Especially being a super senior that I am, I feel pretty out of the loop, if that makes sense. That like a bunch of people that I know already graduated, and some of the people I do know here, they're already older. And I don't really know any of the freshmen or sophomores, except some of the ones that I've met in my classes this semester now that we're back in in-person classes.
I'm a senior now. And when I was a freshman, I thought that most of my experiences that year would not be the ones that would define college. My first Spring Weekend, it poured rain, it was basically a flood. And I thought, it's fine if one of my Spring Weekends is a wash because I'll have three more of them. It's three years later now and I've not been to another Spring Weekend on the quad. I sit on the Main Green, and hear tour guides go by who talk about the Main Green as the place for Spring Weekend takes place. And I think, that person probably has never even experienced a Spring Weekend themselves. Here's Michelle Gibble, a sophomore who started giving tours this semester.
The things that I'm not as comfortable with, I usually don't mention when I give my tours just because I can't really tell people about my experience. We can mention that it should happen or that it normally does happen. So it's definitely a little sad that I don't get to share my personal experience with them. But I think the experience of Brown in general, I can still share.
I would agree that I also feel like I've missed out on some things that I had wanted from my college experience. Even though I wish I could get to know Brown how it was before the pandemic. It might never go back to that. Here's Sam Wertheimer.
Even if the culture of Brown is changing, it's not necessarily a bad thing. New people, new minds, new experiences and traditions aren't a bad thing. And so even though I'm on my way out, it's good to see that there is new things and new stuff coming in.
Katy, thank you so much for bringing in the story.
Happy to do it. And thank you for having me on.
This has been The Bruno Brief. Our show is produced by Corey Gelb-Bicknell, Max Karpawich, Katy Pickens, Ben Glickman and me, Livi Burdette. If you like what you hear, subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
This episode was produced by Olivia Burdette, Ben Glickman, Corey Gelb-Bicknell, Max Karpawich and Katy Pickens.
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