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The Bruno Brief: Is Brown really the "Happy Ivy?"

In the fifth episode of The Bruno Brief’s series on myths at Brown, Producers Elysee Barakett and Samantha Renzulli talk about their reporting on happiness at the University. Brown is ranked by the Princeton Review as the 10th happiest campus in the country and the happiest school in the ivy league, and has a general reputation for being the “Happy Ivy.” But why does Brown have this reputation? Is it really true? 

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

Listen to last week’s episode about the way income impacts students’ experiences at Brown here.

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Michael Satlow

What is the meaning of life? What does it mean to wrestle with the fact that we have the certainty of death? What's a relationship and how does that function? I think these are just big human questions. They're perennial, big human questions, and they attracted a lot of people. 

Luke Briody

We have all of these awesome things like the open curriculum and S/NC, and the various different aspects of that, that make it really easy to say, oh, I can do everything I want to do. And I should have no reason to be struggling, because I have all these resources to back me up. 

Kate Talerico

It's hard to quantify, like, what is happiness? But for me, it just felt like a lack of like, competition, really. I just felt like Brown is a pretty collaborative environment. And so that was, I think contributing to a student's overall well-being just because you had people who are a little bit more willing to support one another instead of trying to get ahead.

Elysee Barakett

Many people know Brown as the “Happy Ivy,” and the Princeton Review ranked Brown as the 10th-happiest campus in the country. 

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If you’re curious, Tulane is ranked as number one.

Last fall, The Herald in collaboration with the Brown Opinion Project conducted surveys about students’ well-being at Brown. Around 81% of participants said that they were either very happy or somewhat happy, and about 9% reported that they were somewhat unhappy. Roughly 1% reported being very unhappy and the rest were neutral or chose not to respond. 

Samantha Renzulli

At the same time, a UCS fall poll last year, which surveyed roughly one-third of the undergraduate student body, found that only 10% of polled students were “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied” with Brown’s Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, while 20% of polled students were either “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied.” 

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The rest of respondents were neutral, did not use CAPS or did not respond.

Elysee Barakett 

So why does Brown have this reputation, and when did it start? Is it really true? 

This is episode five of our season on myths at Brown. My name is Elysee Barakett, Bruno Brief producer and staff writer. 

Samantha Renzulli

And I’m Samantha Renzulli, Bruno Brief producer. 

Elysee Barakett

This is the Bruno Brief.

(Music)

Samantha Renzulli

In 2015, The Herald published a three-part series on mental health at Brown. Kate Talerico, a former managing editor at The Herald, originally reported the series. She found that while CAPS had been increasing its resources, student demand was rising at a rate it could not adequately keep up with. Talerico found that the reputation of Brown as a happy place led students to feel inadequate when they didn’t feel happy. 

I spoke with Talerico, who now works as a freelance journalist, about the series.

Kate Talerico

I think that series really came at a time where colleges and their role in students’ mental health was becoming this issue that people were getting into, you know, like, people were asking, ‘What responsibility does a university have when it comes to students' mental health?’ 

Elysee Barakett

Talerico said she believes that the perception of Brown being connected with happiness has been part of the University’s “marketing” or “mythology” for years. She noted that despite this perception of Brown, there’s not a universal “Happy Ivy” experience.

Kate Talerico

Even though as you said, like, Brown has this reputation as the happiest Ivy, that doesn't mean that people aren't going through their own things all the time. And so that's what I wanted to highlight, just how students were navigating Brown’s mental health system and the support systems that were put in place. Mental health is just a part of life anywhere even at the happiest Ivy.

Elysee Barakett

Today, students are able to get a counseling appointment within one week of requesting one, according to Bryant Ford, the director of Counseling and Psychological Services. Since 2016, there has been no limit on the number of sessions a student can have.

Samantha Renzulli

In The Herald’s fall 2022 poll, about 20% of respondents said they made appointments with CAPS during the semester, around 8% responded that they wanted to but were unable and roughly 70% responded that they did not try to make an appointment.

Luke Briody ’25 is a member of Students for Samaritans on campus. The group works with the Samaritans of Rhode Island organization to raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention and staff the state's largest suicide prevention hotline. Briody shared that when they missed their CAPS appointment, the lack of follow-up from CAPS concerned him.

Luke Briody

I realized after it had passed that I'd missed it. And I was like, “Oh, well, they'll probably call me to reschedule.” They never did. And it's just things like that, where if a student is actively seeking out mental health resources, and then for some reason it falls through. It feels like that should be a case where said mental health resources should probably be checking on said student. 

Samantha Renzulli

Bryant Ford declined to comment on an individual student’s experience with CAPS.

Briody also raised concerns about the accuracy of Brown’s reputation as the “Happy Ivy” and the impact this perception has on the University’s student culture.

Luke Briody

I think that that title sort of connotes like live, blind joy. Where I, in my work with the Samaritans, very clearly see that that is resoundingly not the case for many, many students because of all of the struggles that they've seen in their lives.

There's a lot of pressure to always be really happy doing what you're doing, because why should you be unhappy in a class that you actually 100% fully chose to take? Why should you feel overworked when you signed on for everything and you really didn't have to do it all?

(Music)

Elysee Barakett

Ford, the director of CAPS, told me that mental health services in general have changed over the past few years because of the pandemic, with more therapists obtaining licenses in other states to conduct online appointments. There has also been an increase in conversations around mental health. 

Bryant Ford

I still think there's a stigma associated with mental health and people accessing it, but I do think the coverage from the media during the time of the pandemic expanded our language and sometimes our nomenclature related to mental health and well-being, which I'm really excited about. Unfortunately, it had to take a pandemic to do that.

People are being more and more vocal about the ways in which they either might be doing okay or struggling. It's hard because with physical health, there is something that people can see. They can see a bandaged arm or they can see a broken leg. People can't see what depression looks like, or they may not be able to see what anxiety might look like for some folks.

Samantha Renzulli

Ford highlighted that people of different identities may also be impacted in different ways.

Bryant Ford

A lot of students of color sometimes will come here and sometimes struggle with belonging. And what I mean by that is, you know, maybe they experience microaggressions that in some ways could impact their ability to feel like they connect here. And so in that respect, I'm glad that we have a service like CAPS, because it can be a place for students to come and unpack some of those concerns. 

Samantha Renzulli

Ford added that there is often an increased level of stigma regarding mental health within communities of color, which can affect the way students access treatment.

Bryant Ford 

They may either come from places where family members are not supportive of them seeking treatment, or they may be international students who are coming from places where there may not be much language connected to things like depression or anxiety. And so I do think that can sort of affect them when they come to campus because many of these students might find adjustment to Brown could be challenging. And they may not know that a service like CAPS can be helpful in helping them navigate that.

Elysee Barakett

He explained that having a diverse staff may encourage people from different backgrounds to start therapy. 

Bryant Ford

CAPS has evolved in that we have added more staff, more clinicians to our team. Our staff is more diversified so that we're able to meet some of the unique needs of our students.

Samantha Renzulli

As for the origins of Brown’s reputation as the “Happy Ivy?” Ford said he feels people are happier at Brown because of the school’s “laid back atmosphere.”

(Music)

Elysee Barakett

I spoke with several students in the Blue Room earlier this semester about this perception of Brown. All of them had heard about Brown’s reputation, most before even stepping onto College Hill. 

They all believed it held true. Here’s Hannah Son ’25

Yeonwoo Hannah Son

“I was sitting outside on like, the Main Green today, and I was like, looking at, like on the Main Green, everybody looked really like happy and relaxed. I think it's a cozy environment. I think I think it's a happy Ivy”

Elysee Barakett

Margherita Micaletti-Hinojal ’23 said she originally learned about Brown’s image online from a list of colleges. But the reputation fully set in while comparing her visit to Brown with other schools where she’d heard about how stressed and overworked the student body was.

Margherita Micaletti-Hinojal

And then I got to Brown. And everyone was talking about like, “Oh, we're pretty happy. Have you seen this list?” I was like, “Yeah, that sounds like a good place to be then.”

Samantha Renzulli

Gidget Rosen ’24 said she heard about Brown’s reputation back in high school. Rosen attended what she called an “ultra-competitive” school and “was pleasantly surprised” when people weren’t discussing their high school extracurriculars or SAT and ACT scores her first year.

Elysee Barakett

Other students similarly highlighted the more relaxed academic environment as a potential explanation for why Brown is perceived as a happy university. Here’s Micaletti-Hinojal again.

Margherita Micaletti-Hinojal

Brown tries to make the experience as non-stressful as possible. Obviously, school is always going to be stressful, but things like the open curriculum or S/NC or not having GPAs or not having plus and minuses, like all those things, I think make it a lot less toxic academically.

Elysee Barakett

And here’s her friend Cecilia Martin Garcia ’23.

Cecilia Martin Garcia

Interpersonally that's also true, like, people really push their friends to do the most and help them when they need it, which is just a really nice feeling. Like I have had countless essays read and edited by my friends. And that has been like so so helpful, just feeling like you're not like competing against anyone, everyone's just on their own path. And people really respect that.

(Music)

Samantha Renzulli

But Martin Garcia noted that she wasn’t always so happy at Brown. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Martin Garcia found that it was challenging to maintain her mental health as a result of strict restrictions.

Cecilia Martin Garcia

Having those small pods and not being able to interact as openly with other community members was a very isolating feeling at times. I think that at least for me, sophomore year was not an easy year for those reasons.

Michael Satlow

​​I thought after COVID that, you know, I was seeing a lot more student stress, brittleness. Students were breaking a bit more easily than they were before. 

Samantha Renzulli

That was Michael Satlow P’22 P’19, professor of Judaic and religious studies. He teaches the class RELS 0010: “Happiness and the Pursuit of the Good Life.” Satlow said he created the class in response to the student stress he saw after the pandemic. 

He told us he expected 40 students to take the class. 

Then, it “exploded.”

Now, the class has a current enrollment of 408, half of whom are seniors. The class gives students a space to talk about life’s biggest questions. 

Michael Satlow

The course is divided into three parts where the entire first part is simply trying to grapple with the meaning of happiness and the good life. What is it? What's the goal, where are we headed? And then after that, we can get more into, kind of, how do we understand ourselves? And what are the ways in which we sabotage our own quest for well-being? And then at the end is what can you actually do to help you to move toward a better sense of well-being? 

Elysee Barakett

Satlow was originally surprised to see so many students interested in the course, but he said it made sense that there was such a need for the class after COVID.

Michael Satlow

Sometimes people lose track, especially when you're younger, of kind of ultimate goals, like what are you doing with your knowledge and where are you going with it? And that could bring a certain level of kind of drifting and unhappiness. 

Elysee Barakett

When planning the course, he realized that positive psychology intersected with a lot of the religious texts he has studied. The course aims to put those fields in dialogue in a way that may be helpful to student wellbeing. 

His class has also discussed what it means to attend the “happiest Ivy.”

Michael Satlow

When they have periods of unhappiness, as they inevitably do — as everybody inevitably does — they feel more responsible. So if here in the happiest Ivy, they are having periods of unhappiness, what does that say about that? So this labeling isn't particularly good — for at least some students’ sense of well-being.

(Music)

Samantha Renzulli 

That’s it for this week’s episode of the Bruno Brief. Tune in next week to hear from Finn Kirkpatrick about the history of weed at Brown. This episode was produced by Elysee Barakett, Liana Haigis, Finn Kirkpatrick, Daphne Dlunziewski, Matias Gersberg, Sonya McNatt, Olivia Tingley-Kelley, Jacob Smollen and me, Samantha Renzulli. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to subscribe to The Bruno Brief and leave a review. Thanks for listening.

Music

KeoKeo by Blue Dot Sessions https://www.sessions.blue

Denzel Sprak by Blue Dot Sessions https://www.sessions.blue

Our Only Lark by Blue Dot Sessions https://www.sessions.blue

Hakodate Line by Blue Dot Sessions https://www.sessions.blue

Four Cluster by Blue Dot Sessions https://www.sessions.blue



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