The 2013 Student Orations

Elizabeth Mills: “Heads Up”

May 26, 2013  |  Media Contact: Kevin Stacey |  401-863-3766
Elizabeth Mills - “I wouldn’t be a Brown student if I didn’t toe the line between 
independence and insubordination. In learning how to strike that 
balance, I’ve come to appreciate that it is possible to keep one’s head 
up and do good work.”
Elizabeth Mills “I wouldn’t be a Brown student if I didn’t toe the line between independence and insubordination. In learning how to strike that balance, I’ve come to appreciate that it is possible to keep one’s head up and do good work.” Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Elizabeth Mills of Washington, D.C., was one of two student orators chosen for Brown University’s 245th Commencement. Mills delivered an address titled “Heads Up” on the College Green Sunday, May 26, 2013. The text of her oration follows here. (See also Student Orators news release and text of the oration by Tanayott Thaweethai.)

I came into Brown with a plan — and it changed.

This isn’t as much my line as it’s all of ours. We were gently nudged away from one concentration when we couldn’t even sit through the introductory course’s introductory lecture. And then we stumbled into the most unexpected of disciplines when a professor’s shopping period pitch inexplicably spoke to us. The question nagging at each of us now is: Does the Brown mentality — the figure-it-out-as-you-go-along approach — translate into the real world?

For the last four or so years, the Brown community has unconditionally trusted us. Earlier this year, President Paxson described how Brown students are trusted to conduct themselves with “constructive irreverence.” We challenge assumptions. We bend rules. We demand overrides. In short, we’re irreverent, disregarding the linear path in favor of our path. And we have — or we had — the luxury of being so bold because our president, our professors, and our peers trusted us.

Well, the real world threatens to be far less trusting.

In early September, as much of the Brown community gathered on this very Green for Convocation, I was facing a brown-bagged lunch at a lonely desk in Washington. I spent my fall semester on a leave of absence interning in D.C. while on a leave of absence. On that particular day, the second one of my new job, lunch-break protocol was still a mystery, so I ate alone.

This rather pitiful scene conveniently reflects how down I felt at the moment. The catalyst for my woes came as a piece of advice that I’d received from a superior the day before: “Keep your head down and do good work,” she’d said.

As good as her piece of advice was — as good as it is — it just wasn’t for me. For the previous three years, I’d been unconditionally trusted. We’ve all been unconditionally trusted: trusted to figure Brown out as we went along; trusted to come up with our own method when the existing one didn’t quite work; trusted to realize that failure wasn’t an option — though “no credit” was. And so I witnessed, many months before graduation, real world values being at odds with ours here at Brown.

“Keeping your head down” implies insecurity, yet the success of our Brown educations hinged on participating confidently in the process. We likely made more decisions in our first semester at Brown than we did throughout our entire high school experiences. And I’d venture to guess that, if you’re anything like me, we made more bad ones than good ones.

But, in time, it worked. It worked because it didn’t. We adapted.

The biggest distinction I’ve noticed between Brown and everywhere that lies beyond those gates is this allocation of trust. It’s inherent here. And thank goodness for that, because we needed that support given how much we destined to experiment, explore, and fumble throughout our time here. We needed that support to push us through our inevitable periods of uncertainty.

When I told people outside of Brown that I planned to take a semester off from school, they regarded me with more than a healthy dose of skepticism. People asked a lot of logistical questions: Do you have a job? Won’t you graduate late?

My peers at Brown — you guys — had questions of a different nature, ones that opened up conversations. You wanted to talk about what I hoped to see, to feel, and to find. “What will you do first?” you asked.

The important distinction here is not that Brown students ask exponentially more interesting questions than everyone else, though that does tend to be true. More significantly, they regarded me with that underlying sense of trust — trust that, if I wanted to, of course I’d find a way to make my time off worthwhile.

Here’s the good news: Even outside of Brown, trust can be earned. Trust. Can. Be. Earned. The Brown mentality can come with us everywhere we go — if we’re smart enough to wield it wisely and if we adapt our tactics to fit our new settings. We certainly had to adapt when we first arrived at Brown, and we can do it again now that we’re leaving. We can do it without relinquishing our newfound confidence and creativity.

I wouldn’t be a Brown student if I didn’t toe the line between independence and insubordination. In learning how to strike that balance, I’ve come to appreciate that it is possible to keep one’s head up and do good work.

So, in the face of that demoralizing advice that I got in Washington, I adapted the words of wisdom to better suit my needs. I didn’t expect the workplace to operate like a Brown seminar, but I did expect the freedom to keep my head up — so I could see where I was going and where I wanted to go next.

Adjusting to the new environment took time, and it wasn’t easy. My voice started off a little shaky, and my first few ideas simply missed the mark. My jokes fell flat. But I kept at it — kept seeking to learn and adapt even when feeling a bit uncertain. I had to earn my coworkers’ trust before getting a seat at the proverbial table. And, eventually, I did.

Now that we’re graduating and so on the brink of starting something new, we’re at risk of being timid, of introducing only the most polished versions of ourselves to the world. It’s these moments — when we’re tempted to keep our heads down rather than bring up our out-of-the-box ideas — are the ones when it’s most important for us to think back on our Brown experiences. If the cushion of trust was what made us so bold here, then we must walk out of the Van Wickle Gates with an unshakable trust in ourselves. Everyone else will come around in time. For now, we can all agree on this: Whether we’ll be teaching or investing, in a coffee shop or a classroom, it’ll be worth bringing ourselves to wherever we go next.

Editors: Brown University has a fiber link television studio available for domestic and international live and taped interviews, and maintains an ISDN line for radio interviews. For more information, call (401) 863-2476.