PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Alexandrea Pimentel knows firsthand that there are many different roads toward a second trip through Brown’s Van Wickle Gates — and no single path best taken.
When most of her high school peers headed to college upon graduation, she joined the Navy. It wasn’t her original plan — she’d hoped to go straight to college but wasn’t accepted — but Pimentel, who will complete her degree requirements at Brown in December, says it was the best thing that could have happened to her.
“At the time, not getting into college was devastating and overwhelming,” Pimentel said. “But it ended up working out better than I could imagine. This was such a better path for me.”
Pimentel joins 130 fellow Brown students who will complete their degree requirements midyear. More than 70 of them will take part in the annual Midyear Completion Ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 1, (which will be live-streamed on the Brown website beginning at 4 p.m.) held to honor the unique cohort of students often called “.5ers.”
Like Commencement, the Midyear Completion will be celebrated with remarks from Brown leaders, faculty and students. President Christina Paxson will deliver the salutation, and Dean of the College Rashid Zia will welcome students and families. Monica Muñoz Martinez, an assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies, will speak, and two students will offer their senior reflections: Pimentel and Attayah Douglas.
Brown students complete degrees in December for a variety of reasons. Some take time off due to physical or mental health reasons or to care for family members. Some travel, work or pursue independent projects. Others, like Pimentel, came to Brown having earned prior credits toward graduation elsewhere.
After a successful six-year career in the military as an intelligence analyst — a time of great personal growth, she says — Pimentel turned her path back toward a college degree. She enrolled at New England Institute of Technology, earning her associate degree in mechanical engineering. She successfully applied to Brown through the Resumed Undergraduate Education program — a small, highly competitive program for students who have interrupted or delayed their formal education.
At Brown, she planned to continue her studies in mechanical engineering with the ultimate goal of joining NASA’s human space exploration program. But again, her path shifted. Instead of mechanical engineering, she declared a dual concentration in planetary science and visual art — passions she discovered while taking a break from engineering classes to explore the Open Curriculum. Meanwhile, her academic pursuits and military experience merged when she joined the Civil Air Patrol, where she teaches aerospace education to cadets and serves as an aerial photographer documenting coastal erosion.
Next up for Pimentel? She still hopes to head to space someday, as a geologist instead of an engineer, though she’s not quite sure yet how she’ll get there. But after all the twists and turns, she says she feels more comfortable and confident now not knowing. And that attitude is what she hopes to convey in her remarks to her fellow “.5ers”— regardless of whether or not their next steps are clear.
“Whatever they are feeling now, I want them to embrace failure, and to use it as a navigation tool through life,” Pimentel said. “I had a plan, and it didn’t work out. But every detour led me to something better than I ever could have imagined.”
Like Pimentel, this year’s other Midyear Completion Ceremony orator, Attayah Douglas, ultimately changed her academic course after arriving on College Hill.
The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Douglas grew up in a multilingual household and speaks four different languages. At first she planned to study linguistics at Brown. But when a first-year seminar, “Empowering Youth in Urban Education,” asked her to interrogate her own educational experience, her focus shifted.
In elementary school, Douglas had moved from an urban public school district to a wealthy suburban one in New Jersey. The seminar pushed her to consider more critically the many disparities between her two school experiences.
“I saw how teacher shortages in my old school were new textbooks in my new school, how not enough resources in my old school were brand new Apple computers in my new school,” Douglas said. “When I had a chance in this class to reflect on what was offered to me, to really see all the socioeconomic and racial gaps, it spurred my interest in education inequality.”
Douglas ultimately concentrated in education studies, with an emphasis on policy and history. Throughout her time at Brown, she applied what she learned in courses and through her own lived experience in urban high school classrooms in both Providence and New York City — serving as a literacy summer teaching fellow, a consultant on culturally responsive curricula and a coordinator for a program that facilitates hand-on research experiences for girls.
In those experiences, Douglas says she again encountered stark disparities faced by urban public school students — but now, she had the opportunity to address them. She also found time to add a sixth language to her repertoire — Arabic — and to immerse herself in the campus dance community, performing and choreographing for Brown’s Fusion and IMPULSE dance companies.
Now applying to graduate schools, Douglas says she plans to focus her future study and work on developing social and education reform policy that centers marginalized communities.
Douglas says her message to her peers at this year’s Midyear Completion Ceremony will be similar to Pimentel’s: The life experiences that mark you as different can be the ones that make you stronger. At times being a “.5er” at Brown can be an isolating experience, she says, and one where some students keenly feel a sense of otherness compared to their traditionally graduating peers —but it’s important for those who hold this identity to claim it.
“I want everyone in the room to be really proud of what this identity holds for them,” Douglas said. “Whether it meant taking risks, taking time to pause, taking time for themselves or taking time for their families, whether it was a choice or wasn’t a choice… I want everyone to unite and celebrate the fact that there’s a lot of power behind what it means to be different.”