What to Be
When Mandeep Gill's grandfather died in the 1950s, he left no male heirs. In the Punjab region in northwestern India, where the family lived, women were not permitted to own land. Gill's grandmother fought to hold onto a small piece of farmland, but she could not pass it down to the next generation, and the family was plunged into a subsistence existence.
So, in the late 1980s, Gill's parents sought a better life. They moved to California's Central Valley and found work as farm laborers. For the first three years of her life, Gill stayed in India with her grandparents, but when she was three she and her grandmother joined her parents in California, where Gill's father had been taken ill.
The family didn't know what was wrong—just that he was often disoriented, spoke only in short phrases, and frequently did not recognize them. "My mom didn't really know the medical system here, so she never got a proper diagnosis," Gill says. "She always went to Punjabi doctors, because that's what she knew."
Gill's mother sought solace in the family's Sikh religion. They went every day to a gurdwara, or Sikh temple, to socialize and pray for a miracle. "Obviously that wasn't going to happen," Gill says. By this time, her mother had a better job in a cotton factory. She had also found a house for the family in Fresno. "That was her big American dream," Gill says. "She worked really, really hard for us to have a nice home."
Although their neighbors were mostly Punjabi, Gill attended a magnet high school across town that was racially and ethnically mixed. By her senior year she felt confident enough to insist that her father see a medical doctor. The diagnosis was Alzheimer's. The moment was transformative for Gill. "We'd been going to churches and temples and asking priests to help him, and where had that gotten us? Nowhere," she says. Her father died shortly after her high school graduation. She'd never been able to have a conversation with him.
Although her mom wanted her to go to nearby Fresno State, Gill chose Brown partly because "I wanted to have distance, a lot of distance," she says. "I knew I wanted to grow in a different direction."
Gill had planned to become a doctor. "If there had been someone who knew the medical system, there could have been some difference in his treatment, or even just his quality of life," Gill says. But sophomore year her chemistry classes proved harder than she'd expected, and her interests moved toward economics and international relations. She eventually chose to concentrate in economics. She also continued moving away culturally from her family. She stopped attending Sikh services. During spring break of her senior year, she went to Brazil and spent time with an indigenous community practicing Candomblé, a combination of Brazilian and African religions. "It's been an exploration," she says. Gill now calls herself a Christian and goes to church almost every Sunday.
She says it was agonizing to reject her mother's wish that she become a doctor. "When the seed was first planted in my mind to become a doctor, it was so I could help my family and my dad," Gill says. "But that didn't need to happen anymore after he passed away. So what was my reason for being a doctor anymore? There was no reason in the end."
In the fall, Gill will begin work as an investment management analyst at J. P. Morgan in New York City. Her mother, who now works as a school janitor, is not thrilled, Gill says, because she still sees medicine as the surest route to prosperity. Gill feels bad, but she believes she is continuing her family tradition of women trying to build better, more prosperous lives for themselves and their families. She is like her grandmother: challenging the old order, going forward as a pioneer.
"I was the kid who didn't have things," says Rakim Brooks. "Now it's different. I'm the kid who used to not have things." Raised in a Manhattan housing project by a blind grandmother and a mom who worked as a subway conductor, he heads to Oxford next fall as a Rhodes Scholar.
When Brooks was in kindergarten, his teacher recommended him for a gifted program at a nearby public school. Brooks's mother moved to the Bronx, while he stayed with his grandmother, who lived nearer his new school. For an intellectually curious kid, her apartment was an ideal environment, filled with books—from Stephen King to Charles Dickens. Brooks recalls his grandmother reading to him when he was young. "She was really the most profound intellectual influence I think I had," Brooks says. "It was this desire to please her." By the time he was eight, though, his grandmother had lost her sight from glaucoma. "I think that was one of the saddest points of her life," he says. "She loved to read."
At Brown, Brooks scoured the course catalog, looking for classes that would challenge him and expand his worldview. "My friends said I was the course catalog," he says. "I could pretty much tell you any course that was being listed at Brown." He had intended to study applied math, but after taking an Africana studies course on race and slavery, he felt he'd found his intellectual home. "It gave me a rich sense of the intellectual history of African Americans and the African diaspora," he says. His professors posed "a series of questions and claims about American democracy and western liberalism. I began to question in fundamental ways things we almost take for granted."
Brooks took classes on slavery, racism, colonialism, and segregation. He says he was cynical as a teenager, and learning about America's long, ugly history of oppression could have made him even more so. Instead, he says, he emerges from his time at Brown hopeful. "I have no idea what the experience of segregation was like, but I know [African Americans] managed to remain deeply optimistic about what could happen with this country and the world," he says. "I think I take that into the world with me." This matches his own personal experience: "I have had a series of fortunate events in my life. If I have that sense, it's very hard to be cynical. It means change is possible."
At Oxford, Brooks plans to earn both a master's and a doctorate in political theory and then return to the United States for a law degree. He imagines a career as a law professor and legal advocate for the poor. "One of my goals is to give back to the people in the kind of communities I came from," he says. "I feel very strongly about this: There but for the grace of God go I."
In the fall of 2005 Chelsea Lein was, as she puts it, a "bright-eyed freshman." Then her grandparents became ill, and her mother, a single parent who works full-time and was raising Lein's teenage brother, couldn't provide the around-the-clock care that her parents now needed. "I had so many phone calls from my mom," Lein says, "where she was just in tears from how difficult it was to be a caretaker and breadwinner. In spite of how much I was enjoying it at Brown, it really hit me that I needed to go home and help out."
Lein flew back to Minneapolis and took up residence on her grandparents' couch. In retrospect, she says, "I really had no idea what I was in for." She had to feed, dress, and bathe her grandmother, who was incontinent and lapsing into dementia. She "had lost her ability to walk, but not her desire to get up and try," says Lein, who had to watch her constantly. Then there were the tunneling bed wounds in her grandmother's back, which Lein had to fill with medicated pads. "I had always thought of myself as someone with a weak stomach," she says. Not anymore.
Her grandfather, meanwhile, had broken his hip and, thanks to pain and depression, became verbally abusive. He told Lein she'd always been a burden to her mother. Within weeks, Lein became exhausted, twice tripping down a flight of stairs. Once she stumbled right into a commode. "Thank God it was empty," she says.
After two-and-a-half months, she was burnt out. The doctors said her grandmother might live anywhere from a few weeks to several more years. On the verge of a breakdown, Lein decided to return to Brown. Her mother and a few other relatives would try to pick up the burden. "I left Minnesota not knowing what was going to happen," she says.
Just one day later, her grandmother died peacefully at home. It was devastating, of course, but Lein was comforted by having helped at the end of her life. As a baby, Lein had been tended by her grandparents while her mother set up a home in Minnesota. "I just think it was beautiful and cyclic that I was able to take care of my grandmother at the end of her life just as she had taken care of me at the beginning of mine," Lein says.
Still, back at Brown Lein suffered bouts of insomnia, and when she did sleep she had nightmares. "I was haunted from the things I'd witnessed while caring for my grandmother," she says. Whenever her roommate turned over in her bed during the night, Lein awoke instantly, imagining it was her grandmother needing help.
Lein was diagnosed with mild post-traumatic stress disorder. What kept her in school, she says, was remembering how thrilled people back home had been when she'd been accepted at Brown. No one in her family had ever attended college. She was the first student from her school to make it into the Ivy League. "I thought of all the people who had placed bets on me back in Minnesota," she says. "I couldn't turn my back on them."
In fall 2006, Lein took a community health class. "It changed my life," she says. The course focused on gaps in U.S. health-care coverage. One she knew firsthand was the shortage of at-home care for the elderly.
Lein officially graduates in December, then plans to go to law school to become a legal advocate for senior citizens. "I love the elderly. I don't know how else to put it," she says. "Just as we show caring and compassion to people when they enter the world, we need to show caring and compassion to them when they leave it."
Understanding the World
It was while riding on the back of a garbage truck, staring into a crusher full of maggots, dirty diapers, and other trash that Frank Nuzzo had his epiphany. "I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I was just at Brown, one of the best schools in the entire world and then like that, in a flash, here I am throwing garbage in 100-degree weather,'" he says. "I just felt such a sense of shame."
His life was never the same again.
Nuzzo grew up in Everett, Massachusetts, a blue-collar city north of Boston. His mother worked two jobs—one as a preschool aide and one as a sales clerk at a store selling Christmas decorations—and his father was a ramp coordinator at Logan Airport. Everyone in Everett knew about Nuzzo. A running back and linebacker, he was the star of his high school football team. He'd been named the 2003 Gatorade Massachusetts Player of the Year and the 2003 Boston Globe and Boston Herald Division 1 player of the year. The University of Massachusetts, Stanford, and Northeastern all recruited him, some offering full tuition. But he chose Brown even though he would have to pay more out of pocket. "We sat down," Nuzzo says, "and my parents told me, 'We will sacrifice for this. We will work harder. We want you to take this opportunity.'"
From the start, though, Nuzzo felt he didn't fit in at Brown. He arrived at class with pen and paper; the students around him had laptop computers. Although he'd been at the top of his high school class he wasn't prepared him for the rigor of Brown. He was self-conscious about his clothes. "They wore penny loafers and I'm wearing these two-year-old Nikes," Nuzzo says. "I felt like people looked at me and said, 'Why is he here?'"
"Out of my shame and my embarrassment, I was hostile," he says. "I was stereotyping. I was pretty much doing to them what I thought they were doing to me." He shot his fellow students dirty looks; he even picked fights. He joined a fraternity and partied and drank. A lot. He began skipping classes and didn't study for exams. By the end of sophomore year, he was failing. Asked to leave for a year, he went home, he says, "fairly certain I would never come back to the Brown campus again."
One morning soon after his epiphany on the garbage truck, he woke around three and watched his father leave for his job at the airport, something he'd been doing for the past thirty years. Nuzzo thought to himself: "Look at your family sacrificing for you and this is how you thank them." He resolved to return to Brown.
This time he shrugged the chip off his shoulder. He made friends. "I started realizing these are amazing people," he says. He no longer felt ashamed of his background. "Some of my closer friends, they go back home to estates," he says. "I go back to Everett, and that's okay. I learned that." His grades improved.
In the spring of 2008, Nuzzo suffered a concussion during football practice. He'd had concussions before, but this one was severe. Fearing that another hit might kill him, he quit the game. It was, he says, one of the hardest decisions he's made. "I was so used to people cheering for me," he says, "and all of a sudden when that goes away, you're alone."
With more free time, he studied harder. Sociology classes helped him understand the role his parents had played in his life and how his socioeconomic status had shaped him. Those things, he says, make you who you are and shape the way you see the world.
"He has made the difficult transition from his working-class background to successful scholar without betraying his roots in the former and without feeling like an impostor in the latter," sociology professor Gregory Elliott writes of Nuzzo. No mean trick.
Nuzzo plans to become an entrepreneur. "I'm just in a very good place right now," he says, "a very good state of mind."
Having FaithDiscovering faith helped her understand her place among others.
When Amy Ehrhart of Golden, Colorado, arrived at Brown, she hadn't stepped foot in a church in eight years. Her parents, who were nominally Presbyterians, had stopped going when she was ten. "We just kind of left the church we were at and didn't find another one," Ehrhart says. "It wasn't an issue."
Ehrhart had been a top athlete and an academic superstar in high school. She thought she would continue to do well at Brown. But classes were more difficult than she'd expected, and she starting getting B's and C's. As a forward on the women's basketball team, she found herself no longer the star player she'd been in high school. Because, as she says, "I was just putting all my self-worth in academics and athletics," she felt completely lost.
In the spring of her freshman year, a few of her teammates invited to her to a meeting of a student prayer group called Athletes in Action (AIA). At the meeting, held in the Blue Room, were about forty Brown athletes. The tables were pushed to the side so the students could sit in a circle. For an hour and a half, they discussed the importance of God in their lives and how He affected their commitment to their teams and athleticism. They also reflected on what had happened to them over the last week. Afterward, they prayed, and then three of the football players brought out their guitars for a jam session.
AIA ministry, a subgroup of Campus Crusade for Christ, one of the country's largest evangelical groups, can be found on campuses all across the country. Besides meeting and praying with one another, members travel around the world playing sports with local teams and talking to them about faith and religion. Ehrhart returned to the AIA meetings for the next several weeks, befriending other members, participating in discussions about Bible verses, and listening to the occasional guest speaker. Sometimes they discussed weighty issues like free will and human suffering, but "it was not so much what they were saying," Ehrhart says, "as how they lived their life at peace with themselves. You could clearly tell that they were pursuing God." Ehrhart's faith grew stronger and more fervent.
The women's basketball team had a record-setting season in Ehrhart's freshman year, posting the third-most wins in the program's history. But after several of its best players graduated, the team's performance declined, prompting some of Ehrhart's classmates to quit. Ehrhart says that if she'd had the same attitude with which she'd arrived at Brown—focusing on being a star—she would probably have left the team too. Instead, she says, her newfound faith "helped me let go of my identity." She became less me- and more team-centric. "God refocused me on what was important about basketball," she says. "God gave me great genes—I'm six-foot-two. He chooses people to be great at whatever He wants them to be great at so we can glorify Him."
Ehrhart was baptized last fall. It took place in the backyard pool of a local resident of Providence whose church had worked with AIA. Ehrhart chose to become immersed in the baptismal water rather simply sprinkled with it. "It was a great feeling to go through that the way Jesus did," Ehrhart says.
Now that she's graduated, Ehrhart hopes eventually to become a physical therapist working with athletes. This summer she is off to participate in AIA's Colorado Project, where she will be trained, she says, to speak to others about her belief in God. In the coming years, she hopes to go abroad to play basketball and talk to athletes in other countries about her faith. "I would love to see the effect that my faith and my love for God have had on me during my Brown career spread," she says. "I want this to happen for as many people as it can."
A Long WayNearly a quarter century after matriculating, a senior finally gets his degree.
In her Opening Convocation address last fall, President Ruth Simmons talked about the diversity of the incoming freshman class. Sitting before her were students from Zimbabwe, Moscow, and Bali, she said, students of all different races and ethnicities, and even one student who "returns to Brown from a twenty-year absence." She then asked the question most people in the audience were probably wondering: "Where have you been?"
Afterward, a forty-one-year-old man named J. G. Boccella went up to her and identified himself as that long-missing student. They resumed their conversation a few weeks later, when Boccella told her the story of his life, a life that he said has been "a heck of a journey."
In 1985, Boccella, then a Pittsburgh high school student, learned that his early application to Brown had been accepted. "I'll never forget the day," he says. "I was so excited I jumped up and hit my head on a light fixture in my parents' house."
But when he arrived on campus that fall, he quickly discovered he was not equipped to deal with the stress and challenge of being away from home and among some of the smartest students around. Still reeling from the death of his grandfather a few months earlier, he had "demons," he says, that made him "behave in self-defeating, self-destructive ways."
He provoked conflict with other students and spent a great deal of time alone. He couldn't focus on his schoolwork. His grades fell.
He also began bumping into walls. He had no idea why. He wouldn't see them coming up and walked straight into him. One day, he rode his bike into the hedges along Thayer Street. "People just laughed," Boccella says. "They thought, 'That guy—what is he, drunk?'"
During his sophomore year, his mother persuaded him to see a doctor. He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable genetic eye disease that can lead to partial or even near-complete blindness. "Everything was kind of collapsing at that time," Bocella says, "and really I didn't realize what was going on," Boccella says.
He feel back to an old interest: playing piano and singing. He and a friend formed a band, and instead of returning to Brown for his junior year, in 1987 he went off to New York City to become a star. Success did not come as easily as he'd hoped. After a sweltering summer in the Big Apple, Boccella returned Pittsburgh, where he studied jazz and gospel music at the Afro-American Music Institute. In 1990, he moved to Florence, Italy, for six months to study visual arts. Back again in Pittsburgh, he founded a new band, Modo Mio, which was the name of a panini he'd seen in Italy. "I created a logo and incorporated," Boccella says. "I initially tried doing T-shirts and caps but it flopped." In 1999, Boccella turned Modo Mio into an arts organization that brings music-based programs on race and civil rights issues into schools.
A few years ago, he made what he says was a spur-of-the-moment decision: "It was one of those husband-and-wife conversations where I said, 'You know, how about I go back to Brown?' Boom, boom, boom, it just happened so quickly after that. Things kind of naturally unfolded." He phoned the administration to see if he could return. The answer was yes. He then submitted an essay and application and was accepted.
Boccella moved to Providence with his wife and two-year-old daughter. "The first three weeks back at Brown were just kind of euphoric," Boccella says. In fall 2008, he took Painting II with Professor of Art Wendy Edwards. It made perfect sense: he'd taken Painting I with her two decades earlier.
In his classes, he says, "I got some looks like, 'Hi, this is a new one for me. I just don't know how to deal with this.' I just tried to be low-key." This time around, Boccella was more focused and disciplined. "It was like, 'Wow I'm back here as a man who knows who he is,'" Boccella says. "I'm not lost anymore."
Boccella's eyesight has deteriorated steadily since the 1980s. He doesn't appear blind, but he can only see what's directly in front of him. Without peripheral vision, he now uses a cane for the blind to get around. He will stop to stare at a flower until he has memorized all of its detail, he says: "I will literally look at it and be so aware that someday I might not be able to see. I can look for an hour."
Next school year, Boccella is off to earn a master's at the Harvard education school's Arts in Education program. At Baccalaureate he was offered the chance to sing a song he'd written about his time at Brown. "And it's so good to be back on this new day," he sang. "I've come a long way. / It's good to be here. / We've come a long way."
A bout with cancer showed her what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
In September of 2007, as she was beginning her senior year, Hannah Garrett suddenly became breathless. She was walking down Thayer Street at the time, so she stood off to the side huffing and puffing, unable to proceed any further. She headed to Health Services. An X-ray showed she had a collapsed lung. She rushed to a nearby hospital.
Eight hours later, a doctor appeared at her bedside. "I have good news and bad news," he said. "The good news is that we know what's wrong with you." The bad news was that it was cancer. Tests had revealed tumors in her upper chest, in her armpits, and under her diaphragm. Fortunately, it was Hodgkin's lymphoma, a highly curable form of cancer. "I was too young for this," Garrett remembers thinking at the time: "The uncertainty about the future was just overwhelming."
Garrett wanted her family nearby as she underwent treatment, so she dropped out of school and headed back Chicago. It was while she was being treated that she met the woman who would forever change what she wanted to do with her life. She was Garrett's nurse.
"What are you doing this weekend?" the nurse asked Garrett as she was about to undergo her first chemotherapy treatment.
Garrett groaned. "Isn't it obvious?" Garrett thought. "Dealing with the side effects of my cancer."
The nurse then told her she should go shopping because the city's sales tax was about to go up.
As insignificant as it may seem, the nurse's advice was a wake-up call. "When you're first diagnosed, you think you're this diseased sick person," Garrett says. "She was the one that really helped me realize, 'This is a setback, but I'm still me.'" There were other positive experiences in the months to come with nurses who gave her hugs, immediately returned her calls, and told her they would do everything they could to help her beat her disease.
Garrett's cancer went into remission after twelve treatments of chemo, but then in May of 2008 she learned it was back. She realized that instead of returning to Brown in the fall she would be having a stem-cell transplant, radiation treatment, and more chemo. She took classes at Northwestern, but, she says, "I kept on thinking about how it wasn't Brown, how I wished I was there."
She says she got by during this time by heeding the advice given to her by a friend's mother who had survived breast cancer. "The secret," she told Garrett, "is that you surround yourself with love, and you become a warrior." Garrett says that much of this love came to her in the form of e-mails from friends at Brown.
The stem cell transplant worked. Garret returned to Brown last spring to complete her senior year. A biology major, she'd thought she was going to be a doctor. Instead, she now plans to become a nurse. "Until you go through a medical emergency," she says, "you think doctors are the ones with a degree, they're the ones who know everything. But nursing is an extremely important branch of medical care. Nurses are focused solely on patient care."
Garrett has five more years worth of screenings to pass before she can be declared truly cancer free. While she's doing it, she'll be comfortable knowing that nurses are not far away.
All photos by Scott Kingsley