Founded in 1764, Brown University has lived a life spanning several centuries. As the seventh-oldest institution of higher education in the United States, the University has seen a world of war, peace, protest, technology and so much more. In 258 years, the University has managed to accumulate a rather eccentric history of superstitions and traditions — most of which directly pertain to the annual commencement ceremony at the end of each May.
The first commencement ceremony was held in 1769 and hasn’t remained the same since its birth. Over the years, Commencement has gone through many changes, from the time of year it’s held to the language used to write students’ names on their diplomas. Throughout changes to location and adjustments to graduate marches, students can rest assured that University superstitions will be the one consistency of Commencement.
With this year’s commencement ceremony quickly approaching, The Herald spoke with seniors and alumni about their experiences learning about — and believing in — the many quirks that make Brown the characteristically unorthodox institution it is today.
Van Wickle Gates: To graduate or not to graduate?
When Toby Arment ’23 walked through the Van Wickle Gates in 2019 during convocation his first-year, he was filled with pride. But when he walked through the same gates just three years later with the Brown Band for the annual commencement march, he was struck with shock. It might sound strange to non-Brunonians, but here on College Hill, legend has it that walking through the Van Wickle Gates twice before Commencement will curse students from graduating as planned.
“Usually, the band avoids the superstition by standing on one foot and hopping backwards as they pass through the gates so they do not ‘walk’ through them,” Arment said.
Although Arment was a member of the band, he somehow didn’t get the “hopping” memo.
“I had been abroad all year and not closely connected to the band,” he explained. “So I was unfortunately not reminded of this ritual during the practice for Commencement but everyone else had been sometime before.”
“So as we approached the gates, everyone got on one foot and turned around, while I, dumbstruck, walked straight on through the gates,” Arment added.
Thankfully for Arment, he’s a non-believer.
Despite being initially off-put upon realizing he’d allegedly cursed himself, Arment explained that he now “wear(s) it as a badge of honor.”
“For a moment, I was like ‘oh darn,’” he said. “But I’m not superstitious and did not believe that I would face actual negative consequences. It’s like a mild embarrassment because I did the one thing you’re not supposed to do, … but I don’t know anyone who intensely believes in it.”
Arment said that while he doesn’t believe in the superstition of the Van Wickle Gates, he sees how the myth brings people together. The superstition itself has inspired the creation of traditions within the Brown community.
Even after walking through the gates twice, “I’m still going to graduate now,” Arment said. “But thanks to this silly belief, we have goofy band kids doing a little jig that only Brown students can understand the rationale for.”
For Noah Glickman ’23, the omen surrounding the gates themselves isn’t “real,” but the superstition on its own becomes “a self-fulfilling prophecy, emotionally.”
“With the Van Wickle Gates, the cultural truth is its specialness,” he said. “The gates are a material expression of success which, of course, can create problematic individually held beliefs about how success is defined.”
“It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not on its own,” Glickman continued. “The fact that we have a cultural belief around it is a truth in itself. We make our own reality.”
Lili King ’22.5 graduated at the Midyear Completion Celebration in December. Because the ceremony happened on December 3 this past year — before the end of their last semester — King and the other 0.5ers who participated were made to walk through the Van Wickle Gates twice before being technically complete with their degrees.
“I walked through the gates twice in that sense,” King said. “But I would never walk through them twice any time before.”
“If they were open in the spring during finals for Commencement, I would absolutely refuse to go through them,” she explained. “Like, if I ended up walking through them and then had a final that was super hard or something, I definitely would think that I had been cursed in the middle of the test.”
The Pembroke Seal: Leaving Brown with a baby or a diploma
A 2009 Herald article explains the traditional superstition surrounding the Pembroke Seal: “A decades-old myth says that girls who walk over the Pembroke Seal, located on steps near Alumnae Hall, will become pregnant before they graduate, and that male students who tread over the Pembroke campus landmark won't graduate at all.”
Glickman, who doesn’t have to worry about the prospect of getting pregnant, said that his attitude toward the Pembroke Seal is similar to the one he has regarding the Van Wickle Gates — except he feels that “the Pembroke Seal legend is incredibly sexist.”
This tradition “attempts to circumscribe success by pitting getting pregnant against having an academic career,” he said. “You can only be a ‘good’ student if you don’t get pregnant, by this measure. Just like you can only be a ‘good’ student if you walk on graduation, complete your degree and pay the University money for it.”
“These traditions are just ways of teaching us the University’s cultural values — women can’t be both good mothers and good students, a degree is the end-all be-all of academic success,” Glickman added.
For Carina Sandoval ’23, who is “a very superstitious person,” the mythic curse of the seal is enough to warrant a change in direction when strolling across north campus.
“When I lived on north campus, I would always jump over the seal if I accidently got too close,” she said. “I think that the Pembroke Seal tradition is obviously outdated, and when classmates or visitors would tell me that it was stupid, I agreed.”
“But there was always the little sliver in my mind that was thinking about how I'm someone who is able to get pregnant and how I very much do not want that right now,” Sandoval explained. “So I stay away from it to this day.”
“I can interpret anything and everything as a sign or coincidence or an omen, so when there's something already in place that has been passed down from students for years, I'd rather not risk it,” she added. “I stay away from the Van Wickle Gates and Pembroke Seal as much as possible because I know that I put so much effort into coming here that the thought of not graduating is terrifying.”
Ilyaas Sugal ’23 also avoids the seal to “not jeopardize any chances of getting a degree.”
“I’m a first generation student, low-income and college is new to my family,” he said. “Nobody does college — just my older sister and I, so risking graduation was absolutely out of the question.”
Sugal first encountered the seal and its prospective power during his first-year winter. Just before finals season, a snowsquall hit Providence — a new condition for Sugal, who was born and raised in California.
“It was a snowstorm out of nowhere. It went from clear skies to heavy snow in minutes,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like it in my life, so as it's snowing and raining, I decide to head home to my dorm in the middle of studying.”
Sugal gathered his things, loading notebooks and folders into his backpack, and waved goodbye to his friend before setting off to walk home from Smith-Buonanno Hall.
“As I’m walking, I’m heading in the direction of Sidney Frank,” he explained. “And it was so dark out that I completely forgot about the Pembroke Seal as a whole.”
“It’s snowing and raining hard and as soon as I take the third step where the seal is supposed to be, my brain processes that I’m not supposed to be stepping on that,” Sugal said. “So I hyperextended my leg to immediately skip that third step and step above it. I have long enough legs, but it was snowing and it was raining and that slush that was on the ground completely got me.”
“When the leg that was moving landed on the ground, it skidded,” Sugal laughed. “I damn near did the splits over the Pembroke Seal. I didn't step on it because I flung my body over it — I literally flipped, landed on the ground on the other side of the stairs, and laid there on the cold, wet ground for five seconds wondering, ‘Did that really just happen?’”
“Did I really almost break my back and pop my knee just to follow a thing that people said might impact my graduation? And the answer is absolutely yes,” he said. “Me and the Pembroke Seal? We don’t vibe like that.”
Though each of the seniors The Herald spoke with told different stories, one unique commonality prevailed among all of them. The culture established by these curious University traditions and superstitions is enough for them to play along, whether with enthusiastic fervor or half-hearted indifference.
“I'm not a superstitious person,” Sugal said. “But there are some things where when enough people start to believe in a superstition, you also sort of start to believe in it.”
Sofia Barnett is a University News editor overseeing the faculty and higher education beat. She is a sophomore from Texas studying history, politics and nonfiction writing.