For students that have been on Brown’s campus in the last four years, there have been two definitive eras: before the pandemic hit, and after.
To understand the impact of the pandemic on student culture and the on-campus experience, The Herald spoke to three senior students and three first-years about their time at Brown, the pandemic and student traditions.
Both seniors and freshmen agreed that Brown carries a warm culture among the student body, but because of the pandemic, first-years and seniors participated in this culture in different ways. Some seniors discussed their worries about traditions, from the Naked Donut Run to specific club customs, fading.
But, reflecting on their time at Brown and looking forward, both remained optimistic.
Brown’s campus culture
Seniors and first-years alike characterized the student culture at Brown as individualistic, welcoming and kind. Despite the disruption of the pandemic, the school’s social values have maintained.
“In an overall sense, I think that its culture is really positive,” said Zoe Zimmermann ’22.5. “I think we really have a reputation of being the happiest Ivy and live up to that, which is really great.”
Lucas Kuan ’22 agreed that the University’s culture is generally welcoming. “I would say socially, it's very friendly, but pretty laid-back.”
“Everyone's really open-minded and really flexible and willing to try new things,” said Annie Huang ’22. “With the open curriculum … my friends and my classmates all seem to always be exploring something outside of their concentration or interest. And I think this carries through within my social life.”
First-years noticed a similar openness and acceptance in Brown’s student culture.
“Socially, it's … independent individuals,” said Hannah Landau ’25. “The student body is friendly, and I think academically it's kind of the same.”
She noted that Brown students tend to approach problems with humor and levity, saying students tend to be “silly and goofy. Like, scientifically, they're just more silly and goofy.”
“From the social side, Brown’s been very inclusive,” said Dhruv Anand ’25.
Though first-years and seniors agreed on Brown’s laid-back and open culture, they differed when it came to meeting new people. First-years mentioned a certain ease of meeting new people, while seniors reflected on how the pandemic made those meetings more rare.
“There's a lot of opportunity for meeting people with different grades and meeting people based on your interests,” said Hayden Deffarges ’25. “And I've never felt too hemmed in by any particular social group or activity.”
“I think there's always avenues for meeting new people, like at any point in the semester at any time,” they added.
For seniors, expanding their social circles was extremely challenging during the pandemic. “The biggest thing (was) not meeting as many people,” Kuan said.
Huang agreed that meeting other students during the pandemic was exceptionally difficult. “That's something that sometimes I feel sad about for (my) entire junior year,” she said. “I definitely tried to make that up this year as a senior.”
Kuan noticed that friend groups and social circles remained pretty static, and that this carried through into academic relationships as well.
“Not being able to go to class in person, not being able to drop by office hours as naturally as you would have before the pandemic, you don't really get the same exposure to some of the professors and some of the faculty as you might in other years,” Kuan said.
Zimmermann said that isolation due to COVID created “a chasm between upperclassmen and underclassmen.”
Continuity and knowledge within clubs and specific extracurriculars also suffered during the pandemic.
“I'm a little bit worried for when the current seniors leave, because we're the only ones with a good memory of pre-pandemic stuff,” Zimmerman said. “A lot of things have been lost in the pandemic.”
In the tap-dancing club What’s On Tap?, for instance, Zimmermann mentioned a dance that was traditionally practiced every year. But due to the pandemic, a number of members either had no experience with the dance or had forgotten and had to relearn it from scratch.
But since the pandemic, there has been a new appreciation for in-person activities and an increase in people branching out, Huang noted. “People are really putting themselves out there,” she said. “I've encouraged my friends to try new things, and I've done that myself.”
Brown traditions: The Louis Challenge, Naked Donut Run and more
Zimmermann noted that while there may be excitement about University traditions, it seems they have faded. “Especially since the pandemic, I feel like this thing has kind of gone off the rails. It's not as vibrant as I think it was.”
Zimmermann has both witnessed and run in the Naked Donut Run. That tradition “is definitely one that I think changed after the pandemic,” she said, explaining that some underclassmen didn’t know about the tradition until they saw it for themselves. “People didn't realize it was happening … there were a lot of scared people in the Rock.”
During his time at Brown, Kuan said he had done the Louis Challenge, an informal tradition where students pull an all-nighter and eat at Louis Family Restaurant when it opens — while Louis opened at 5 a.m. before the pandemic, contenders now have to stay up an extra hour since the restaurant delayed its opening time to 6 a.m. Kuan had also completed the Ratty Challenge, which entails staying at the dining hall from breakfast to dinner.
First-years have not participated in many University traditions. Deffarges explained that beyond seeing a few friends run in the NDR, they haven’t engaged with many other specific challenges or traditions.
Anand participated in the Primal Scream, but missed the NDR. “I haven't experienced a ton of traditions at Brown so far,” he said.
Is it Greg or New Dorm?
One of the most telling indicators of a cultural shift occurring between class years due to the pandemic has been the colloquial debate over what the Vartan Gregorian Quadrangle is called.
Since its construction, students had called the dormitory New Dorm — but this changed when the class of 2024 was isolated from other class years due to the pandemic. A new nickname took hold: Greg.
When asked, Huang and Kuan were firm. “It’s New Dorm,” they both said.
Zimmermann explained that she had originally called it New Dorm, but was excited about the new moniker. When she was a sophomore in 2019, she and her friends had tried to rename the dormitory as well. We “hated the name New Dorm. We thought that was a stupid name,” she said. Their alternative was “Vart,” but it didn’t catch on.
Among first-years, some don’t call the dorm anything at all. Landau said she only knew the dorm as “the place where they had Rocky Horror auditions.”
“We usually call it Greg,” Deffarges said. “For a while as a joke, we were calling it Varty-G. I would say we never call it New Dorm.”
Anand said that he had “mixed responses” to the Greg versus New Dorm debate. He had been introduced to the dorm by upperclassmen who called it New Dorm. “But then I heard about the whole debate,” he said.
“It's something kind of like a clout thing,” Anand added. “If you call it New Dorm, you're cool. Because you're just older, right?”
Looking back and looking ahead
Seniors and first-years alike agreed that college has been a time for growth and personal change.
“I hope that I don't ever get too settled,” Deffarges said about their hopes for their next three years at Brown. “I hope I'm always doing new things and meeting new people. I think the magic of a place like Brown is looking to connect all the time.”
Landau said that while college is difficult in many ways, she looks forward to continuing to grow. “I wouldn't say it's completely the most fun, but I think it's very forgiving,” she said about her first year so far.
“I hope to change in a way that I can’t anticipate,” she added. “As long as I like it, I feel like that's how I will keep together under stress and pay attention to where I am.”
“It's had its ups and downs, as life tends to have,” Anand said. “But overall, I think college has been a good thing for me. I really love the independence that I have.”
The seniors, now at the end of their college experience, expressed gratitude for their time at Brown despite the pandemic and other disruptions.
“I had the best time in college,” Zimmermann said. “A big reason why I took a gap semester over the pandemic is because I wanted to make the most of it. I still have another semester left to do that.”
“I'm definitely thankful,” Kuan said. “Despite the circumstances, I found a really good group of people freshman year and sophomore year, and we've hung out since.”
Huang said that despite the difficulties she faced in her time at Brown, it’s all been worth it. “I've definitely grown in many ways, since I came to Brown as a freshman,” she said. “It definitely hasn't really been easy.”
“But generally, I'm really thankful for the experiences and people I've met in four years at Brown.”
Katy Pickens is the managing editor of newsroom and vice president of The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board. She previously served as a Metro section editor covering College Hill, Fox Point and the Jewelry District, housing & campus footprint and activism, all while maintaining a passion for knitting tiny hats.