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Collins ’23.5: In limbo: Participating in Commencement as a 0.5er and cancer survivor

Where do you begin a story about the worst moment of your life? First, you realize that there is no beginning. Then you learn that what you thought may have been the end was only another starting point. Brown University will not let the nightmare of my cancer end. As a result of commencement policies that need to be revised, I have been barred from fully participating in what should be one of the happiest moments of my life. Brown’s commencement speaker policy has denied me the chance to be fully recognized alongside the peers with whom I have shared my undergraduate experience because I am a 0.5er, instead only allowing me to apply to speak at next year’s Midyear Completion Celebration and the following Commencement. The University’s unjust refusal to accept and review senior orator nominations for members of the class of 2023.5 to speak at this spring’s graduation further penalizes them for making the often difficult and necessary decisions to promote their physical and mental health. Brown must acknowledge its role in exacerbating the challenges experienced by students taking a leave of absence. The University can and should make participation in Commencement and the role of commencement speaker fully accessible for all who identify as part of the Class of 2023.

My medical leave journey began one morning in August 2021 in the New Dorm A bathroom, when I found a large grape-sized ball protruding from my neck. I promptly called the on-call nurse who told me that Health Services wouldn't be open all weekend. She recommended that I go to an urgent care facility. So, I called a few friends and one was kind enough to take me. Sitting in their car, I laughed wryly to myself. “Hey, what if this is cancer?” I mean, there’s always a lump in those stories, right? We both laughed. Hard. 

That would be ridiculous.

Three months later, on Nov. 24 2021, I was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma. It was my dad’s birthday. Lymphoma is a kind of blood cancer, and while treatment looks different for everyone, if I wanted to live I needed six months of chemotherapy. Instead of returning from Thanksgiving break along with all of my friends, I got PET scans, a port and my first round of chemo. The kicker of it all was that I was scheduled to fly out of JFK Airport in New York on Jan. 3, 2022. I was going to study abroad. There was a moment when I thought I could make it all work. I was sitting in my hospital bed, my hair a frizzy mess, looking at a white male oncologist over twice my age. “Maybe I can get chemo in London?” He looked at his attending physician, concerned, then back at me. “You should take time off of school. There will be many moments when you won’t be able to do anything. This treatment isn’t easy.


I wish I could say chemo was the hardest part of the past year. Treatment was just one item on a laundry list of bitter pills I had to swallow. Chronic illness changes the fabric of life as you understand it. Chronic illness changes the fabric of you. Despite the CDC’s report that more than half of young adults ages 18-34 have experienced chronic illness, Brown did not have a support group for such students in place until I created one, Chronic Community, in fall 2022. During a difficult readjustment to campus — a time in my life when I’ve had the least control — Brown has perpetuated the harms of ableism which I had already been experiencing. 

Like other students at Brown who have to take leave, I was on a mission to save my life. For many of us, taking leave was not our choice and certainly not our plan. So, who is Brown to tell me that my name cannot be on the 2023 Commencement Bulletin? Who is Brown to refuse to consider my nomination and speech for senior commencement speaker? I am an integral part of this community and a valuable member of the Class of 2023, just like everyone else in my class. Brown does not have the right to punish me for my illness, and the University’s decision to do so is unjust, cruel and worthy of public outrage. Brown needs to update its commencement speaker policies to reflect that for many, officially graduating with a different class is not a voluntary choice.

Any 0.5er will also be hard-pressed to find clear and concise information about the limits on their participation in the Commencement for the class year they might identify with more, especially in one place. University policy on recognition in the Commencement Bulletin can be found on Brown’s Midyear Completion website, which notes that while 0.5ers are welcome to join in commencement weekend activities, they will not be formally recognized in the Commencement Bulletin until the following year. However, in 2024, many of us will have started our post-grad lives in different cities, states and even countries; attending 2024’s Commencement just isn’t realistic. And since I will study abroad in the fall of 2023, I cannot attend the Midyear Completion Ceremony. Brown does have an official policy on commencement speakers — on page 58 of the Faculty Rules and Regulations, which is tucked away on the Office of the Provost’s website on policies and procedures. The policy, which is not a quick Google search away, specifies that only graduating seniors can speak — I found out about it because I requested the information from the College. I only made that request after the College informed me I had been nominated, like many others in my class, to submit a drafted commencement speech for review. When I received the nomination email in December 2022, I was surprised and immensely grateful. However, I was told only after submitting my speech that, due to my 0.5er status, I could not apply to speak until next year's Midyear Completion.

Someone in our community believed I had something of value to say to my peers at Commencement. But with this decision, it feels I am being told that my words mean nothing to the Class of 2023. But I do have so much to say about how this school has shaped me, about the impossible decisions I had to make during my time here and about the things I have given back to this community. I am a facilitator for Chronic Community, I am a graphic designer and student office coordinator at BWell and I am a co-events coordinator for Underground Thursdays. I am a part of the Class of 2023 even though I had to take a semester off due to my cancer. My illness is not my fault. And all 2023.5ers, who are all members of the Class of 2023, deserve to be considered for senior commencement speaker.


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