Midyear Completion students inspire, innovate on their paths to graduation

Brown’s Midyear Completion Celebration, to be held virtually on Saturday, Dec. 5, will recognize the unique achievements of this year’s 0.5ers, who complete their degree requirements this month.

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.”

“When someone asks me what I love about Brown, it all boils down to one thing. It’s the people — the people who I’m surrounded by, the people who push me to think, the people who are my coaches and teammates, the people who are my cofounders and my mentors.”

Charles Isgar Brown Class of 2020.5
Charles Isgar, Brown Class of 2020.5
 

But what Isgar couldn’t have anticipated — and what his remarks for the Midyear Completion Celebration will highlight — was the impact that the Brown community has had upon his own development as a student, peer leader and entrepreneur.

“When someone asks me what I love about Brown, it all boils down to one thing,” he said. “It’s the people — the people who I’m surrounded by, the people who push me to think, the people who are my coaches and teammates, the people who are my cofounders and my mentors.”

A business, entrepreneurship and organizations concentrator, Isgar has launched multiple endeavors at Brown both supported and inspired by connections he has forged with students and faculty members since arriving as a sophomore in Spring 2018.

“Most of the entrepreneurial endeavors I’ve pursued have revolved around building mechanisms that allow people to connect with each other,” he said. “In these endeavors, I’m helping to provide a vehicle that brings people together.”

As co-president of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program, or Brown EP — a student-run initiative dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship among the University’s undergraduates — Isgar helped to connect his peers with resources, mentors and collaborators that would help them develop their own endeavors.

He also founded a Roundtable Discussion Series, co-sponsored by Brown EP and the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, that invites successful company founders and investors — many of them Brown alumni — to share their experiences with student entrepreneurs in an intimate setting.

“Because it’s a conversation, it becomes an opportunity for everyone there to create relationships and network,” he said. “I’ve been in discussions where students engage with alums who then help them find their first full-time jobs, all because they engaged in an hourlong conversation. Creating a space for opportunities like this has been incredibly rewarding.”

Isgar is also connecting students to each other, and to new opportunities, beyond Brown. In March, he co-founded Intern from Home, an online platform that gives students and recent graduates from across the country access to virtual work opportunities at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person internships scarce.

“When you see a problem like this arise for people around you, it’s hard to look away without trying to help solve it,” he said.

Since its launch, Intern from Home has connected users from over 300 colleges and universities to hundreds of companies offering virtual positions in a range of fields, from marketing research to software engineering.

Isgar attributed the platform’s success to his team of colleagues — all Brown students and recent graduates — his faculty mentors and his student-centered coursework, which have together taught him how to act innovatively, with an eye to helping those around him.

“An education at Brown teaches you how to think about what you can do for others,” he said. “The many lessons and experiences that I've gained from my coursework and my mentors and my fellow students are like pieces of a puzzle. Brown allows you to take all of these pieces with different shapes and sizes and figure out how they fit together to help address a need in the real world.”

Additional reporting by Maggie Spear.