I’ve learned many lessons both inside and outside of the classroom during college. But one of the most profound lessons changed my outlook on college, and on life — and it happened on an otherwise mundane day in 2020.
Growing up, my dad had been laid off from work more times than I could count, and while my mom dedicated her life to raising me and my four siblings, she did not bring in any income. As a result, we developed several side hustles to make ends meet, one of which was scrapping old metal. One Saturday morning at the scrapyard, a few of the employees approached us to help weigh out the more valuable materials we had brought. They were speaking Spanish, and my dad, who hadn't practiced Spanish since high school, decided to strike up a conversation. I was annoyed and embarrassed, as he was making a dismal weekend chore take longer than necessary. When I went to summon him back to the car, I saw my dad and the workers in jolly conversation, almost as if they were at a reunion reminiscing over old times.
On the ride back, I thought over the exchange my dad had spurred. I couldn’t have imagined a worse set of circumstances to strike up a conversation: We had been in a freezing scrapyard under a bleak winter sky, surrounded by loud machinery. But for some reason my dad had found cause for cheerful human interaction. In fact, he had better luck making friends in the scrapyard than I did during the icebreakers of my first year of college. This simple exchange had brightened his day and the workers’, and it had transformed another run-of-the-mill chore I would’ve likely soon forgotten into a vivid scene I could not stop replaying in my head.
Fast forward a few months, and I was surrounded by metal again. But this time it was not scrap metal; rather, it was the silver interior of the elevator at the Omni Hotel, where a few hundred of us were staying as sophomores. I’d just picked up my lunch that afternoon and walked through the foyer and into the elevator, watching the doors close behind me. I was waiting for the red number on the display to reach 15 so I could retreat back to my room and eat my lunch. Those days were monotonous: I’d wake up, attend class via Zoom, maybe work out, complete my homework, scroll on social media and fall asleep to TV after eating dinner. I felt like I was missing out on college. Sure, we were in the “unprecedented times,” but it almost felt like I had been living life more fully on that dismal morning at the scrapyard than I was at Brown, where I was supposed to be having the best four years of my life.
It was truly draining. I was letting life pass me by. The most exciting thing that would happen was errantly receiving a “[PLEASE READ] COVID-19 Test Required” email, which at least got my heart racing a little. But as I recalled that moment in the scrapyard, and my mix of shame and surprise, I remembered that it was the latter that had overtaken the former. If life was really passing me by, I didn’t have much to lose. I decided to follow my dad’s example.
Those few minutes of silence in the Omni elevator made up most of the daily human interaction I got. I resolved that I would turn them into something memorable.
It started with simple questions: “What floor are you headed to?” The initial conversations were quick and perhaps a bit stilted, but in the small community of the Omni, faces passed each other plenty of times, and it wasn’t long before I had people who I looked forward to running into. I quickly learned that my fellow elevator passengers were, if anything, even more excited to engage than I was. Anonymous peers turned into people with stories: Halle, who described what the underlying theme of her artwork was; Evan, who was so committed to crew that she brought her very own rowing machine into her hotel room; or Ben, who helped me understand just what exactly was happening when GameStop’s stock was going “to the moon.”
In the most physically isolating and lonely time of most of our lives, my days were filled with people again.
Our class is composed of future doctors, writers, scholars and trailblazers of all forms. But more importantly, we are humans, each offering stories of our lives, all of which have led us to this very moment. Stories that bring us closer to each other. Stories that I would have never heard had it not been for making that initial conversation.
Textbooks can teach us meteorology, but they can’t commiserate with us over how dreary the rainy Providence weather can be. ChatGPT can help us solve math problems, but it will never be the person who helps you see your self-worth after failing a math exam. And freshman year icebreakers will never not be awkward. But at least we can bond over the shared experience.
The Brown elevator that started at freshman year is now on its final floor. The bell has chimed, the doors are opening and our next steps lie ahead. As we prepare to venture off in an array of dazzlingly diverse directions, let us not forget our journey up through the many stories. Let us cherish the memories we hold with our fellow passengers. And as we go our separate ways, let us look forward to the conversations, the stories and the friends that lay on the path ahead of us.