I arrived at Brown my freshman year after a 14-year run at a tiny all-girls Catholic school in New Orleans, Louisiana. For the first time in my life, I was free to create my own schedule, to choose my own classes, and even to wear something other than a plaid skirt every day. I was excited but mostly terrified.
In many ways, that first fear-filled week of orientation activities remains a bit of a blur to me, but one event lives in my memory in vivid color: the activities fair.
As my peers and I entered the giant athletic complex, we were overwhelmed by the spectacle before us — table after table of extracurricular options. We saw performance groups, religious groups, political groups, cultural groups, more groups than we ener realized could exist in just one place. And each one seemed to encompass a particular label: International Student, Chess Player, Buddhist, Future Doctor, Athlete, Activist, Belly Dancer. I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to figure out which specific identity best fit me.
I searched in vain for the Female Catholic Southerners Alliance. There appeared to be no Novice Feminists Seeking to Learn More Collective. No luck in my hunt for the Descendants of Sicilian Immigrants Society or the Lost Freshman Club either. So what could I be? Was I a pirate singer? A debater? A cheerleader? Was I a political columnist? What were my political beliefs anyway?
Like most of my fellow freshmen, I ended up stopping by a number of tables, writing my name on countless email lists, and never actually participating in roughly 90 percent of the new clubs I’d signed up for. In retrospect, I realize I was not alone in my activities fair anxiety. And more importantly, I’ve come to reconsider the labels that I assumed each group encompassed. While some of these labels were written explicitly on their table signs, I realize that many of these labels were ones that I had unknowingly placed on these groups myself.
In many ways, we all go through life in labels. Some of these labels are ones that we wear proudly and perhaps even placed upon ourselves. We worked hard to earn them. The label of “college graduate” is a fitting example. Others stem from the people around us, often from those who don’t even know us. Cultural labels can create community, but they can also be alienating. Sometimes we reject harmful labels, struggle with them, and at other times, we re-appropriate them.
Our four years at Brown have taught us to question every label we’ve ever placed on any person or group. Even more so, we’ve learned to challenge the labels we identified with ourselves. As a comparative literature concentrator, which for non-Brunonians is our word for major, I’ve spent a lot of my time buried in paperback novels and participating in small discussion groups. Reading Judith Butler in my literary theory course, hearing Gloria Steinem speak in Salomon Hall, and even studying Disney princesses in my fairy tales and culture course have challenged me to rethink what my gender identity means to me. Analyzing Faulkner in my first-year seminar and studying the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in my public policy course have forced me to consider what my life in New Orleans has taught me and how I can share my experiences with others. Studying Italian language and culture made me realize how little I actually knew about my heritage and my great-grandparents who arrived in a new country where they felt there was no place for them.
As our time on Brown’s campus comes to a close, we’ve emerged on the other side of many books, discussions, and research projects with an even more complex sense of identity than we ever imagined possible. Our professors and classmates have broadened our horizons, not only by sharing their knowledge and unique perspectives, but also in helping us realize that we have so much more to learn. My own sense of self is full of nuances and unanswered questions, and I couldn’t even begin to categorize myself as a particular kind of person. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.
We did not all attend the activities fair freshman year, and many of us arrived at Brown a bit later as transfer students. But we’ve all encountered labels in some form here. Our time at Brown has taught us many things, and perhaps one of the most notable lessons is this: We are not labels. Our opinions, interests, and experiences, do not fit into little boxes, and they never will.
The same is true of the people around us. We might sometimes feel inclined to view others as I did that day at the activities fair: simple labels. But there’s a sense of arrogance in assuming that we can sum up others within the confines of our own consciousness. At Brown, we have welcomed the opportunity to discover and cultivate complexly layered identities. We’ve learned that no simple label could summarize our ever-expanding understanding of who we are at this critical point in our lives. Identity is complex and fluid. This understanding is a vast privilege that should inspire in us an appreciation for the complexities of others. It should teach us to stop making assumptions.
That’s because ultimately, we didn’t come to Brown to find answers. We came to Brown to come up with better questions.
When we applied to Brown, one of our essay prompts stated as follows: “French novelist Anatole France wrote, ‘An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's about being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't.’ What don't you know?”
While many of us saw this essay as a daunting obstacle to overcome on our journey to our dream school, I don’t think we realized at the time that this prompt was in fact providing a glimpse into the kind of education we would receive at Brown: one that would challenge us to question everything, including ourselves.
We have learned and unlearned and learned again. We have asked difficult questions that have no clear answers. We have labeled ourselves and others, and then we have torn down those labels with joyous vigor. Our time at Brown has empowered us and has also made us realize that we cannot assume things about ourselves or others. Saying “I don’t know” can be much harder than making assumptions, but it opens our minds in many more ways. And today we walk out of the Van Wickle Gates not as labels, but as Brown grads, ready to question and to embrace what we do not yet know.