It's Okay Not to Know

By Maahika Srinivasan '15 / November/December 2014
November 5th, 2014

On the eve of September’s Opening Convocation, a warm and humid Sunday when parents could still be seen carrying heavy objects into dorm rooms, Dean of the College Maud Mandel and President Christina Paxson addressed first-year students and their families on the College Green. In between their remarks, Undergraduate Council of Students president—and BAM social media intern—Maahika Srinivasan ’15 offered one of the few speeches not delivered over Labor Day weekend and Opening Convocation by a member of the Brown administration. After the Sunday speeches, the Brown Daily Herald asked a few first-years for their reaction. They said that, while they appreciated the Paxson and Mandel remarks, it was Srinivasan’s speech that most resonated with them. After reading it, you’ll see why:

Hi Class of 2018! My name is Maahika Srinivasan and I’m the president of the Undergraduate Council of Students, the mouthful of a term we have at Brown for the Student Government.

Mark Ostow
"The gripping fear of not knowing," Srinivasan says, "pushed me to carve my path of discovery."

I’m here today to wholeheartedly welcome both you and your families to Brown and to perhaps share a little advice that I’ve picked up along my roller-coaster journey through this institution over the last three years.

But here’s the real deal—the cross-my-eyes, pinky-swear truth. When I sat down to write this speech, I ended up staring at a blank Word document for a whole week, trying to concoct the perfect pearl of wisdom that would make your Brown experience “significant.”

And after those seven days, I came to this resounding conclusion: I don’t know.

I have no clue what zingy pieces of guidance to share with you about successfully molding your Brown experience, because, to be honest, I’m still knee-deep in shaping my own. And if you were to ask me ten years from now, when I’ll likely be miles away from this campus, this community, and the incredible memories they’ve given me, I’ll probably still be trying to figure just how to make my Brown experience meaningful in the grander scheme of my life.

So that’s what I’ve realized I want to share with you today: that it’s okay not to know.

Consider this: You’ve all just finished confidently (and successfully) packaging your years of academic, extracurricular, and personal passions into little bites of 250 words or less. You all wrote beautifully crafted responses to college application questions like “Why are you drawn to certain areas of study?” “What community do you most identify with?” and: “Why Brown?”

And maybe, just between you and me (and the hundreds of other people sitting here today), you realize, like I did, that those 250 words were just the beginning. Your Brown experience will be a dedicated search for those additional thousands of words that describe your academic passions, the communities you belong to, the reasons why you picked Brown.

And that’s okay.

It’s okay not to have any idea what on earth the V-Dub is. It’s okay not to, for the life of you, remember the names of the last five people who introduced themselves to you. Or for you to have no idea how shopping period works—and no, I am not referring to a trip to the mall.

Three years ago I sat where you are and I was terrified. I was terrified of leaving my family, my home country, and the safe cocoon that was my high school, a place in which I knew exactly who I was, what I was good at, and where I belonged. Now, at Brown, amidst a sea of new faces, the more terrifying prospect I faced was the uncertainty of who I’d become and what course I’d chart to get there.

And guess what? Even after countless classes in a wide range of disciplines, phenomenal extracurriculars, the most supportive friends, and guidance from advisers, there’s still so much I don’t know. I mean, luckily I have learned enough to tell you that the V-Dub is the Verney-Woolley Dining Hall over on that side of campus.

But what I am undoubtedly sure of is that, at least for me, the gripping fear of not knowing pushed me to carve my path of discovery at Brown.

As a part of our rich 250-year history, we celebrate with great zeal our entrance to and exit from Brown with the momentous walks through the Van Wickle Gates. But if you ask me, what we should really be celebrating is all that time in between those steps—the time you spend physically on and off campus navigating college to find answers to your questions.

Because in trying to figure out the answers to my own doubts and questions, I took risks. I tried something new—an obscure class or an unexpected extracurricular. I failed at a lot of it. Like, really spectacularly failed. But I stopped trying to puzzle out everything on my own, and I started reaching out for help—I talked to my Meiklejohn, my academic adviser, some of my professors, and upperclassmen. I stopped blabbering, trying to fake my confidence to everyone, including myself. And I started listening more.

Hearing my peers’ stories, I discovered that Brown is a magnet for those who are still questioning everything. The Open Curriculum is founded on the premise that incoming students may not yet know what makes them tick and hence should have the freedom and independence to explore and find out.

In learning that I wasn’t alone, I started feeling a little more comfortable in my discomfort. I was able to be honest about how confused I really was. Because I was challenging myself to try different routes and opening myself up to new people, I started to experience a fulfillment that I wouldn’t have found had someone just handed me the answers.

I guarantee you that across the country every student eagerly awaiting a “fresh start” in college is scared. But what differentiates you all, as Brunonians, is your inherent willingness to take risks. You all have the unique ability to convert that commonly shared fear into fodder for scholarly and personal discovery.

In fact, you took what probably was your biggest risk to date by committing to Brown, a process that made you stop to question what you value. But I promise you, what makes Brown worth that risk is the support networks and “safety nets” that will help you up every time you take a chance and fall. It’s with those helping hands that you’ll build your own personal support webs that will carry you far past your years at Brown.

So, in the end, all I’m trying to say is this: Don’t worry if you have a ton of questions, concerns, and doubts. That’s why you’re here—to figure it out. And although the path you’ll carve to find your answers will have its own distinct shape and direction, you’ll have an adviser or a professor just an e-mail away, a friend just a sympathetic phone call away, and countless others to help mold it.

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Related Issue
November/December 2014