PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Josephine Benson wasn’t sure exactly what academic path she wanted to pursue in college — which is exactly why she chose Brown. When Benson was growing up, her mother, a Brown alumna, painted a picture of Brown as a place to explore a seemingly infinite set of educational interests.
“My whole childhood, anything that came up, my mom would be like, ‘Oh yeah, I took a class on that at Brown!’” Benson said. “So Brown always held this mythical appeal where you could learn about everything and anything.”
And she did. Benson explored different academic concentrations, including pre-med and chemistry, before settling on geology. Undergraduate fieldwork in Brazil and on the islands off the Maine coast — two places she’d never been, and may never have visited were it not for her geology courses — helped to seal the deal.
Her extracurricular opportunities expanded as well. Benson played club soccer, and during her sophomore year, decided to sign up for a training offered by Brown Emergency Medical Services. The work captivated her, and Benson spent the summer preparing to take the EMT national licensure exam, which she passed that August.
“All of a sudden, my world just felt so expansive,” she said.
Benson is one among 116 accomplished “.5ers” — Brown undergraduates who complete their degree requirements in December — who will be recognized at the University’s Midyear Completion Celebration, which will be held virtually on Saturday, Dec. 5. She and Charles Isgar, a fellow .5er, will offer student remarks at the celebration, which will be presided over by Dean of the College Rashid Zia.
Undergraduates may complete their degree requirements at midyear for a wide variety of reasons, including transferring from other institutions, taking time off to pursue professional opportunities or creative projects, and requesting leave to focus on academic or medical issues.
For Benson, the path to becoming a .5er was paved by her EMT work, which took her to economically depressed areas of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, where she saw firsthand the personal struggles being waged against the opioid epidemic. Her experiences led her to take leave from Brown in order to recalibrate how to apply her academic pursuits to the on-site issues she was encountering as an EMT.
“It was hard to reconcile this new reality that I was seeing out there with what was happening on College Hill,” she said. “I didn’t know how the academic setting was preparing me to live in a world like that.”
During her leave, Benson continued to work as an EMT and reconnected with one of her primary loves — the outdoors — which rekindled her passion for geology. In returning to the classroom, Benson found that her time away offered a new and crucial perspective that made it easier for her to succeed.
“I’ve been in charge of things that are a lot more important than the last physio lab I turned in,” she said. “And just the knowledge that I can deal with those things — that I can deal with those tough situations — reminds me that I’ve overcome things before. It was really helpful.”
By enhancing her experience, understanding and perspective, Benson’s leave presented her the chance to become better in all areas of her life, she said. And once that confidence was cemented, she found she could push others to be better. She began advocating for things such as increased mental health support for students —changes that she says the University has since implemented and that she’s incredibly grateful for.
“When I first came to Brown, I didn’t understand how you could simultaneously love a place and be grateful for it, but also tell it that it needs to change,” she said. “But that’s part of what Brown students do, right? We see a vision of the future, and constantly push forward to try and make it better.”
Making Innovative Connections
It was this type of innovative spirit — one heeded with an eye to improving the world — that inspired Charles Isgar to transfer to Brown three years ago.
“I wanted to be around people who have life-changing ideas that can advance our society, and I was under the impression that there were a lot of students like that at Brown,” he said. “Needless to say, that’s certainly turned out to be the case.”