After a postponed arrival due to the pandemic, Brown’s 1,756 first-year undergraduate students began their first term at the University on Wednesday, Jan. 20 — and five of them shared their stories.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — “Surreal.” That’s how first-year undergraduate Briannah Cook described her arrival at Brown less than a couple of short weeks ago.
Beginning their Brown experience is exciting for first-year students in any school year. But for many members of the undergraduate Class of 2024 — whose start was delayed until the spring term to help the University manage the density of students on campus during the pandemic — it has been hard to believe that they have arrived.
Their wait is finally over. While some first-year students have opted to study remotely this spring because of health and safety issues related to the pandemic, Brown welcomed 1,566 members of the Class of 2024 to College Hill beginning on Jan. 9. And all 1,756 first-year undergraduates — including those living on-campus and studying at home —began their first semester classes on Wednesday, Jan. 20.
But the Class of 2024 began making inroads into the Brown community long before today.
In the fall, they took part in the College’s First Readings program — which this year focused on Brown’s own, pioneering “Slavery and Justice Report” — and had the opportunity to enroll for free in a remote course of their choice. They connected with peer and faculty advisors in the newly-remote Meiklejohn Peer Advising Program, participated in community-building programs led by groups like the Community Dialogue Project and the U-FLi Center and joined virtual events run by countless student-led organizations. Many even launched their own unique initiatives, aimed at facilitating conversations and community engagement from afar.
“We are thrilled to welcome the Class of 2024 for their first full-time semester,” said Dean of the College Rashid Zia. “True to the spirit of engagement and exploration of our Open Curriculum, our first-year students began writing their Brown stories ahead of their arrival. They took the first steps in their academic journeys this fall and engaged remotely with community members who will help them shape those journeys over the next four years. We look forward to witnessing all that they can and will achieve now that they are fully immersed within our community.”
In the following profiles, first-year students from around the country and world shared the wide-ranging passions that drive them, the Brown connections that they have already made, and the possibilities that excite them as they embark upon their first full term at the University.
Mina Sarmas: Bringing fellow first-year students together
Mina Sarmas may be meeting her fellow first-year students face-to-face for the first time this month, but she has been creating opportunities for them to meet each other virtually for more than a year.
Shortly after being admitted through Brown’s Early Decision process in December 2019, she created a group chat for the Class of 2024 on GroupMe, a popular messaging app. Since then, the chat has grown to include over 1,400 first-year Brown students — the vast majority of the class — by offering them a space to connect virtually during a time when the pandemic cancelled campus visits and postponed move-in until this spring.
This fall, Sarmas successfully sought one of two seats on Brown’s Undergraduate Council of Students. She knew from experience on her high school student council that she wanted to join student government to positively impact the school community. But campaigning from her home in Long Island, New York — for a position at a school that she hadn’t begun attending full time — raised a new question, she said: “How do you reach people when you haven’t even met everyone yet?”
The answer: Sarmas posted a Google survey on her social media platforms to learn what initiatives most mattered to incoming undergraduates. She used the feedback to develop a campaign platform focused on expanding campus sustainability and enhancing support for first-generation college students.
After being elected in November, Sarmas began collaborating with her fellow first-year representative Emma Amselem Bensadon on an Instagram page that compiles “everything that a first-year needs to know” about life on campus — from information on COVID-19 testing to announcement of virtual events to tips on packing for college.
Now that Sarmas is finally on campus physically, she looks forward to starting her courses — which will cover chemistry and biology, public health and sign language. She hopes ultimately to craft an independent concentration that marries her interests in biochemistry, public health and political science. She also looks forward to becoming involved in the first-year programming offered at the U-Fli Center, a space where students who identify with the undocumented, first-generation college or low-income experience can build community.
“A lot of the kids here come from generations of college grads, they have parents helping them through the process who have been through it,” said Sarmas, a first-generation college student. “I think it’s nice to have a space for you where everyone has had a similar experience.”
But most of all, she said, she looks forward to finally meeting in person the many fellow first-year students that she has met online over the past year.
“We’ve been waiting so long,” she said. “I’m very happy to be here.”
Jordan De Padova: Documenting an unexpected first-year experience
How does a student writer document their Brown experience before it has officially begun?
That’s the riddle that greeted Jordan De Padova when he became a first-year student columnist for the Brown Daily Herald this fall, months before he and his fellow first years would arrive on campus to officially begin their college careers.
“It was a little hard to think of topics related to Brown when I’d been in my room in my family’s house for months,” he said.
But the Ann Arbor, Michigan, native leaned into the strangeness of his situation, writing about the challenges and successes he experienced while finding his place in a community in which he wasn’t yet immersed.
“I remember writing and thinking, ‘I hope this isn’t just me,’” he said.
But the column resonated with his fellow first-year students, who emailed him to share their own, similar experiences, while older undergraduates invited him to reach out with questions he might have during the long fall term before arriving on campus.
For De Padova, the response validated his own feelings and confirmed the purpose of his column. “It made going forward a lot easier because number one, people read it, which is cool, and number two, there’s a reason I’m feeling this,” he said. “It’s because it’s a common feeling right now.”
It also inspired him to expand his virtual engagement with the community by joining additional student organizations — a decision he reflected on in his last column of the term: “[T]he clubs I became involved in weren’t just biding their time until we came to campus ― they provided meaningful ways for us to engage.”
By the time De Padova arrived at Brown in early January, it had been over a year since he’d stepped foot on campus. At the time, he’d been visiting colleges as a junior at Community High School — a magnet school in Ann Arbor that encourages students to design their own coursework in pursuit of their passions — and was impressed by the unique paths of study that the Open Curriculum encouraged.
“No one was like, ‘I’m the biology guy and all I do is this,’” he said. “There were a lot of different combinations of things you could do.”
Now that De Padova has arrived on campus, he looks forward to further immersing himself in the Brown community, exploring the city of Providence and pursuing his interests in a wide range of subjects — with biology and international relations, political science and language studies all on his schedule for spring.
“I’m honestly excited to do school again,” he said. “I’m excited to get back into the groove.”
Kaitlyn Williams: Joining the team before stepping onto the field
Kaitlyn Williams was a high school sophomore when she visited Brown the first time for a soccer tryout.
It was love at first sight for the Peachtree Corners, Georgia, native, who was smitten with Brown’s “beautiful” architecture, the enthusiasm the students had for learning, and the coaches and players who, three years later, she would join on the varsity women’s soccer team.
“I could tell that they really loved the team and loved each other,” she said. “It just seemed like a great opportunity to be a part of a community that strives to make each other better.”
Like her fellow first-year students at Brown, Williams was asked to postpone the official start of her school year to the spring term. But she has already become part of the women’s soccer community she so admired.
Each week this fall, Coach Kia McNeill sent the team a series of training activities — dubbed a PACT plan — focused on developing the team’s physical conditioning, attitude and character, and technical skills and tactical prowess. Weekly activities included community-building activities — like playing games and cooking a teammates’ favorite recipe, virtually — and panels with team alumni and professional players, all held over Zoom.
One panel featured the captains from Brown’s Ivy League championship-winning women’s soccer teams, who spoke to current players about how their team experience had shaped their professional trajectories.
“It was really cool to see how connected they still were, even the ones who hadn’t played together in 30 or 40 years,” Williams said. “You could see the impact the team has had on them — not just because they made close friendships, but also because the connections they made helped them excel in their professional worlds, and it also allowed us to create those connections with them.”
She also got a jump start on her coursework this fall. As part of the University’s offer for first-year students to remotely enroll in a fall course, free of charge, Williams took Intermediate Calculus, a requirement for her concentration in applied mathematics.
“It was a really good way to meet other people,” she said. “And it gave me the chance to exercise my mind a bit before starting in the spring.”
Now that Williams is finally on campus, she is looking forward to embarking upon a full course load that will allow her complement her math studies with courses like Principles of Economics and Sport in American History.
“I’ve never thought about sports from the perspective of the effect they have had on American history,” she said. “I’m excited to explore that more deeply.”
Williams also looks forward to having the opportunity this term to deepen the connections that she made with her teammates virtually last fall.
“I’ve only met a handful of them in person,” she said. “I’m really excited to meet the team.”
Sarah Liu: Making connections from across the world
When the pandemic began to spread globally last spring, Sarah Liu’s boarding school in Kent, Connecticut — like so many other schools around the country and world — sent its students home for the remainder of the year.
For Liu — a native of Dalian, China, a city located on the Liaodong Peninsula, to the east of Beijing — this meant finishing her senior year half a world away from her school.
Now, as her fellow first-year students are arriving on College Hill, Liu is poised to begin her college experience remotely. “There are still a lot of travel restrictions for travelers with Chinese passports,” she said. “And taking such a long trip during the pandemic didn’t feel very safe.”
The long miles and time difference have not prevented Liu from beginning her academic journey at Brown. Liu, who intends to pursue studies in history and applied mathematics, enrolled this fall in Intermediate Calculus, an asynchronous course that “worked perfectly with the time zone difference,” she said.
It won’t be a situation where I arrive on campus and know no one. I’ve met a lot of people online, and then I’ll finally get to meet them in person. I really look forward to that.
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Nor have they prevented her from creating meaningful relationships with faculty and fellow students. This fall, she participated in the new BRANCH First Year Experience Program — a nine-week, cohort-driven program run through the Community Dialogue Project that helped incoming students build a supportive community through reflective, virtual conversations facilitated by students already enrolled at Brown.
“I have definitely met some great people in the program,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to have in-depth conversations with other first-years, rather than just adding someone on social media.”
In addition to the BRANCH program, Liu joined virtual game nights and welcoming events led by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a student-run organization at Brown, and she had the opportunity to meet her peer and academic advisers this fall through Brown’s longstanding Meiklejohn Peer Advising Program, which was adapted to an online format this year.
“A lot of people say that you can ask anyone at Brown questions, but it’s hard to know where to start,” she said. “So it’s nice to have those connections.”
Having the opportunity to forge these connections remotely has been invaluable to Lui, who prioritized campus community when choosing which college she would attend. “I was really looking for a supportive, tight-knit community where I could bond with people,” she said.
Liu found that community feel when she visited Brown the summer before her senior year, she said.
“I just saw students everywhere — students that were reading outside, chatting with friends — and I saw how they greeted each other and greeted me,” Liu said. “I could feel the supportiveness and friendliness between people.”
Although Liu will wait a bit longer to join the Brown community in person, she said that getting to meet with her peers virtually has equipped her with practical tips — on everything from places to eat to courses to take — that will help her when she does arrive.
These online conversations have also given her a head start at getting to know her classmates. “It won’t be a situation where I arrive on campus and know no one,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of people online, and then I’ll finally get to meet them in person. I really look forward to that.”
Briannah Cook: Growing — and growing within — a community
When asked to share a life-shaping moment, Briannah Cook recalled standing on a stage in Rwanda, all alone and so nervous that “my stomach was in my legs.”
Cook was there participating in a community engagement program run by the Latin School of Chicago, where she was about to begin her senior year. The program brought roughly half a dozen students each year to the country, where they volunteered at a summer camp while taking classes in subjects like dance, music and robotics.
It was during a class on dance — one of her passions — that Cook found herself filled with butterflies. But she pressed on, and as she finished, she looked up to find her teacher moved to tears by her performance.
The experience was transformative, she said: “That lit something up inside of me. I felt a passion to share the things that I loved — and to be more confident in myself and vulnerable with others.”
After returning from her trip, Cook redoubled her commitment to helping to shape — and letting herself be shaped by — the communities to which she belonged. “I wanted to give forward the gift my dance teacher had given me,” she said.
Among her vast array of extracurricular activities in high school — including everything from karate to jazz ensemble to student leadership — she found herself particularly drawn to mentorship programs.
Some, like Teen Esteem — a program run by Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority dedicated to public service — cast her as the mentee, giving her the opportunity to ask advice about everything from paying for college to preparing for prom. “It was really nice to meet people from across the city and they help support you in college,” Cook said.
Other programs gave Cook herself the chance to act as a mentor to others. At school, she tutored eighth and ninth graders in English, math and history. And she informally mentored younger musicians that she studied alongside at the People’s Music School, a Chicago-based nonprofit offering students free music lessons, while she herself received mentorship through the organization.
By the time Cook arrived on Brown’s campus this spring, she had already begun creatively contributing to the Brown and Providence communities. Last summer, she co-founded a branch of You Can Too, a program founded at Columbia that connects middle- and high-school students from historically underrepresented groups with mentors from neighboring colleges who have similar backgrounds. So far, she said, the group has two dozen Brown student mentors, who have been meeting virtually with mentees since the fall term.
This fall, Cook also attended introductory workshops as a member of the Bonner Community Fellowship program, a four-year program administered through the Swearer Center that matches first-year students with demonstrated commitments to community engagement with community-based organizations in the Providence area. And, in the weeks before the spring term began, she took part in the Third World Transition Program, a pre-orientation program run by the Brown Center for Students of Color. The three-day virtual program, Cook said, “was the highlight of my year.”
Now that Cook is finally on campus, she looks forward to taking a full course load — one that includes a bilingual First Year Seminar and courses in public health and computer science — and to embracing more opportunities to grow, and grow within, the Brown community.
“Doing things that you love with people you care about — that’s something I definitely want to carry with me through my time at Brown,” she said. “I’m excited to see how my narrative shifts and changes over the next four years.”
Brown’s newest undergraduates, by the numbers
A total of 1,756 new first-year students began studies at Brown University on Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Here’s a look at who is included in the Class of 2024