Chasing Dreams

May 3rd, 2007

Commencement and Reunion Weekend is based on a contradiction. The traditions repeated year after year - Campus Dance, the Saturday forums, the Baccalaureate procession, and alumni field day, to name just a few - ensure continuity and foundation. But each Memorial Day weekend differs from the ones before, in ways that both expose the limitations of tradition and underscore the inevitability of change.

Brown is particularly skillful at embracing this contradiction, demanding as it does academic rigor in exchange for granting flexibility on how to apply it. "Man, did I want to go here," Dave Eggers, the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and one of this year's honorary degree recipients, opened his forum by saying. "Brown was the number one school I wanted to go to when I applied to college. I thought I had learned everything I could learn [in high school], and I wanted to go somewhere without any rules. I was brutally rejected."

As any of this year's graduating seniors will tell you, Eggers statement, funny and self-deprecating as it may be, reflects one of the most common misconceptions about the University. As the seniors assembled on the College Green would have told you with pride and not a little relief, Brown's got plenty of academic rules, and they're hard. One of the traditions off-campus, you might say, is to think otherwise.

Though you might not have thought it as they celebrated on Commencement weekend, the members of the class of 2005 have seen more change than any class in a long time. This year the University broadcast Commencement live on the Web for the first time, and about 560 people, from Providence to Brunei, tuned in. Also, the class of 2005 graduated on a Sunday rather than on Memorial Day, as the University tightened the schedule by a day.

More significantly, this was the first class to spend all four years at a Brown shaped by Ruth Simmons, who became president two months before its members arrived on campus. Judging from their applause and shouts of Ruth!, they're happy with her work.

Most important was that September 11, 2001, occurred just a few days into their first semester. In one way or another, the events of that day influenced their studies and their worldview. How these events will affect their future is a story that began to unfold as soon as they took those first steps through the Van Wickle Gates.

- Norman Boucher


"I have attended many a commencement exercise - but never one quite like this," said actress Phylicia Rashad, of the Baccalaureate service May 28. Undoubtedly. Baccalaureate is the spiritual hub of Brown's Commencement weekend, and the ceremony has evolved into an astonishingly inclusive event. Rashad's address followed more than an hour of meditations and celebrations: a Chinese lion dance, blessings and readings in a half-dozen languages, interpretive dance and Gospel singing, as well as music and poetry. Sarah Chou '05 played a haunting meditation on the Chinese table harp, mesmerizing not only the seniors in the First Baptist Meeting House but the thousands of guests and alumni who watched it on a Jumbotron erected on the Green.

If Cosby Show fans expected Rashad's wry supermom character, Clair Huxtable, they were undoubtedly surprised to get an unabashed call to service. Rashad said that after many years of acting, "I began to see my work as an offering." Backstage before auditioning for The Cosby Show, she said, "I had the most wonderful conversation - with God." She gave students a challenging look. "He is available."

"The light is not there for you alone," she told students.

- Charlotte Bruce Harvey


When the Taliban came to power in 1996, some said they brought peace and security to Afghanistan. "What kind of security was it when giving a girl a pencil and a notebook was considered a crime?" asked Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Samar gave a Stephen A. Ogden Jr. '60 Memorial Lecture in Sayles the day before she received an honorary doctorate.

Samar, who graduated from medical school in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, said because the Taliban's first victims were women and girls, the world paid little attention. And today, she continued, even though the Taliban is out of power, the future still looks grim: Women are stoned to death in the name of honor. Girls' schools are bombed and set on fire. The quality of education is poor for girls and many have no access to it at all. The list goes on. Children are kidnapped for labor and sexual exploitation, Samar told the audience, and there are reports that some are taken to hospitals to have their organs removed and sold.

The war on terror presents its own risks to women's rights, she added, by increasing the prevalence of fundamentalist attacks and suicide bombings. "We cannot allow human rights and women's rights to be sacrificed in Afghanistan - or anywhere in the world - in the name of antiterrorism," Samar said. "As we now know, what happens in Afghanistan affects the world."

- Emily Gold Boutilier


When I was nine years old, my daddy stopped in the middle of our chores in the hayfields of rural Alabama. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat that was dripping from his chin. He stuck his shovel into the ground.

"You know, son," he said as he folded his handkerchief, "I grew up in a two-room shack with dirt floors and no electricity. Owning this little house and farm is my dream come true. But I know that this ain't your dream, and that's fine by me and your mama."

He said that if I had faith and worked long and hard enough, one day I could go to college.

Sitting in a freshman writing class at Brown, I didn't feel like the typical Brown student. I knew about raising cattle, not post-modernism. I knew me some football, not feminism. I knew the Old Testament by heart, but nothing about Judaism. In church I sang soulful southern black gospel side-by-side with my mama and sister, but the concept of Mass was completely foreign to me. I grew up surrounded by beauty, but I knew nothing of art.

Brunonians are always eager to talk politics, and I found myself both learning from them and teaching them. I learned that no amount of wealth can buy a person class, that conservatives do not have a monopoly on morality, that everything liberals label as "progressive" is not necessarily an improvement.

I saw how hypocritical it was for conservatives to seek federal intervention on the issue of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, but then plead for states' rights on the issue of the Ten Commandments monument in the Supreme Court Building in my home state of Alabama. Likewise, I saw the hypocrisy in liberals crying for states' rights on the issue of same-sex marriage but demanding federal intervention to remove the monument in my beloved Alabama.

Excerpted from "Dreams, Diversity, and Dixie," by Joshua Isaiah Wilson '05


As the Medical School class of '05 marched down College Hill, excited parents, spouses, and friends - and a lot of babies dressed in their Sunday best - waited in the First Unitarian Church, which smelled faintly of flowers and fresh coffee. Applause met the seventy-three soon-to-be doctors at the church, where Medical School Dean Eli Adashi offered a somber message: the U.S. health care system, though the envy of many, all too often ignores patients and focuses on treatment, not prevention. Next Dileep Bal, chief of the cancer control branch at the California Department of Health Services, said almost 900,000 deaths could have been prevented in the 1990s if African Americans had received equal health care to whites. Student speaker Robert Gray Ô01, '05 MD talked about the troubles of the medical student, recalling a night in the library when he realized it would be nearly a decade before he'd finish his training. "But the worst part," he said, "was that I realized I hadn't eaten in over a day and it would still be two and a half hours before Dunkin' Donuts opened." His classmates grinned knowingly, surely relieved to have at least finished that leg of their journey.

- Emily Gold Boutilier


Just after 6 p.m. on the Saturday of Commencement weekend, thirteen Chattertocks, wearing sundresses and strappy sandals, were about to do a sound check on the Salomon Center stage when they got a surprise visitor. Dorothy Senerchia '55 had arrived to say that she, along with the late Helen Johnson '55, had founded the women's a cappella group way back in 1952. Senerchia held court for a few minutes on the Green, posing for pictures with Chattertocks seniors. She told them the group started as a parody of the Jabberwocks, the men's a cappella group, and as such performed in men's suits. The first Chattertocks, she admitted, couldn't really sing.

Today the group performs at colleges around the country. Their latest CD, All Modesty Aside, won an award for best female collegiate album.

The evening's show would include eight songs, including Annie Waits, by Ben Folds, Cher's Turn Back Time, and Hold On, by Wilson Phillips. Each of the three seniors, Adrienne Feil, Katie Noe, and Michelle Katzow, would have solos.

At 6:45 p.m., after the sound check, the women moved to a cramped, windowless room in Salomon to apply lipstick and do a final warm-up. Noe distributed sealed cards to each singer: "Oh my god, don't make me cry!" gushed Feil.

Music director Julie Richardson '07 asked to run through Hold On one last time. "This," Richardson warned, "is the biggest concert in the history of the Chattertocks." Not only would Senerchia be in the audience, but so would other early Chattertocks, whom Feil and Angie Thurston '07 had wooed back to campus for a post-performance alumni reception.

After the run-through, with only moments to spare, the women gathered in a circle for a top-secret pre-performance ritual chant. Then they marched upstairs and onto the stage.

- Emily Gold Boutilier


This year's Graduate School Commencement ceremony felt both triumphant and bittersweet. The first class admitted to the MFA program offered jointly by Brown and Trinity Repertory Company was graduating - and their ebullience gave the ceremony a festive air. But so was the program's founder, Trinity's departing artistic director Oskar Eustis, who was preparing to move to New York City, where he has been named artistic director of the Public Theater. His swan song at Brown was to address the nearly 500 doctoral and master's candidates and their families under a tent on Lincoln Field.

"There's something artificial about this moment," he told the crowd, with a wry nod toward his voluptuous academic regalia - "like the drag we're all wearing." Soberly, he lamented the loss of playwright Arthur Miller, who had died the previous week: "It feels like a hole has been ripped in the sky," Eustis said, observing that Miller "claimed his job was to lay siege to the myth of disconnectedness."

"The hardest thing is leaving Brown," Eustis said. "It's a private university with a public purpose." He urged the newly minted masters and PhDs to "offer your genius, your privilege, and your beauty" in service of a better life.

- Charlotte Bruce Harvey

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July / August 2005