Date October 17, 2021
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Students, family members from across the globe reunite in Providence for Brown’s Family Weekend

From forums on the Open Curriculum to an evening at the city’s renowned WaterFire, parents and loved ones joined their Brown students to get a taste of the University’s rich academic, cultural and civic life.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Members of more than 2,700 families of current Brown University students, from as far away as Japan and Lithuania and as close as Providence and Cranston, gathered on College Hill from Oct. 15 to 17 for a weekend of talks, tours, sporting events, concerts and more.

The annual fall Family Weekend tradition gives parents and loved ones a chance to experience life at Brown both inside the classroom and out — from learning how the Open Curriculum shapes each student’s academic journey, to witnessing the artistic expression of orchestras and a capella groups, to participating in WaterFire, Providence’s one-of-a-kind urban experience and the brainchild of a Brown alumnus. 

In welcoming attendees to campus, Brown President Christina H. Paxson said she hoped parents and family members would find that their students are becoming firmly immersed in the life of the University. 

“We've had so much disruption over the past year and a half, I think it's especially important now that all students feel a sense of ownership at Brown,” Paxson said in a Friday evening outdoor address on Simmons Quad. “No matter what their path was to get here, Brown is their university. They have a stake not only in their own social and intellectual development, but in the success of everybody in this community.”

Paxson added that she hopes students will take full advantage of the myriad opportunities Brown offers to engage both on campus and well beyond the Van Wickle Gates: “I am constantly astonished by the goodness of this community,” she said. “And it starts with our students — your children — joining with faculty and administrators to create the caring and collaborative environment we want.”

Attendance for this year's Family Weekend was substantially higher compared to previous years, with more than 1,000 more families registering to attend than in 2019. That is likely due to the fact visitors were unable to gather on campus in person in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Families of sophomores who were unable to attend during their students’ first year on campus were particularly well represented. 

“Drop-off last year was very quick, and we weren’t really able to meet anyone,” said Liz Kelley, whose son, Jack, is a sophomore. “That made sense, of course, but I’m really excited to have the opportunity to come back this year and spend a little more time here with Jack.” 

The Schornstein family from New Jersey felt the same way. “We miss him!” said Dr. Iris Schornstein about her son, Benjamin, a sophomore studying computer engineering. “We wanted to come and see how he’s doing, how he’s settling in.” The family also planned to tour the engineering buildings where Benjamin takes classes. 

Another parent of a sophomore, the renowned journalist and broadcaster Soledad O’Brien, delivered the weekend’s keynote address during Friday evening’s welcome festivities. 

In her address, O'Brien said that a variety of challenges since the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset have been “an opportunity to show that Brown students can grow, and those students have. And they had to acquire more strength and compassion and humanity and generosity and, yes, wisdom.”

That growth, not only among Brown students but in young people across the country, manifested itself in fervent activism tackling the most critical challenges of our time, O’Brien said. She pointed out that young people voted in record numbers in 2020. They spoke out against police brutality and racial injustice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. And they’re leading the charge to demand action to combat climate change.

O’Brien urged students and all attendees to take the lessons of the pandemic with them as they move forward in their lives. 

“I think we have learned over the past tumultuous 18 months that we have to work as a group, not as a lone wolf in the world,” she said. “This year is going to be a group effort, and we’re going to need to work together to help keep each other safe. We actually are responsible for the other people around us. Despite the obstacles, get up every day and keep pushing forward.

“Let’s make sure that the new ‘us’ is an even better ‘us,’” she concluded. 

Something for everyone

Families had the opportunity to take in a full slate of events over the weekend. Faculty shared insights on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for which a Brown faculty member played a leading role. A panel of Brown experts discussed the risks of social media, violence and social isolation among adolescents. Dean of the College Rashid Zia discussed how the Open Curriculum enables a rich, individualized education in an atmosphere in which diverse ideas and perspectives are shared and exchanged.

Art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu discussed the art of Africa and African diaspora. A capella tunes rang out across campus, Brown’s jazz band played classics by Thad Jones and Wayne Shorter, and the Brown Orchestra closed out the weekend with the music of Valerie Coleman, Johannes Brahms and Igor Stravinsky.

“It’s really special for us to see her and spend time with [Teniola]. We’re all making up for the things that didn’t happen last year.”

Dr. Bode Akintan Brown Family Member

Dr. Bode Akintan, a physician specializing in child psychiatry, came to Providence from Toronto, Canada, to visit his niece, Teniola Ayeni, a junior who is studying environmental science with a focus on environmental health as part of Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education. He said he really enjoyed a presentation by Dr. Joel Selanikio, a Warren Alpert Medical School alumnus, about the future of health care, as well as watching Ayeni perform as part of the Brown a capella group Shades of Brown

But the best part of the weekend, Akintan said, was simply catching up with Ayeni and other family members who had come to visit her from Connecticut. “It’s really special for us to see her and spend time with her,” he said. “We’re all making up for the things that didn’t happen last year.”

On the playing fields, the Brown women’s rugby team bested Quinnipiac 26-20. A late surge by the women’s field hockey team fell just short as the Bears lost to Penn 3-2. Brown’s football team fell to Princeton 56-42 despite a standout performance by Brown’s senior quarterback E.J. Perry, who threw for 331 yards and five touchdowns. 

Jonathan Palfy, a sophomore, attended the football game with his mother, Dr. Shelley Palfy, who graduated from Brown in 1992. Shelley said they had a blast despite the final score. “Brown put up a good fight and it got close at the end. It was really fun,” she said. The pair also watched some of Jonathan’s friends play in a rugby match and attended the talk by Selanikio. “The programming was great, and there were so many interesting events. It was hard to decide which ones to attend,” Shelley said.

That night, Jonathan bumped into fellow sophomore Jack Kelley, who lived on his floor last year. The students introduced their mothers. Jack Kelley is a sprinter on the track team, so Liz mentioned how she had the opportunity to meet other track and field parents at a team reception on Saturday. Liz, who lives in Oregon, and Shelley, who lives in the Bay Area of California, were delighted to discover they were both from the West Coast, and chatted about their plans for the rest of the evening as Jack and Jonathan talked animatedly nearby. 

WaterFire lights up Saturday night

Blazing bonfires that appear to float in the rivers of Providence; gondolas gliding in and out of light and shadow; flickering firelight on the city’s arched bridges; music from around the world wafting through the air; pedestrians from all backgrounds, silhouetted by the glow. The creation of Brown Class of 1975 graduate Barnaby Evans, WaterFire Providence has not only helped to transform the city culturally and economically over two and a half decades, it still offers one of the most unique urban experiences in the nation. 

“WaterFire is the thing that everyone needs to do while they’re in Providence,” said Brown graduate student Beenish Pervaiz, expressing the sentiment of many Brown students who have had the opportunity to experience the award-winning public art installation. 

Brown was one of two sponsors of the weekend’s Saturday night WaterFire lighting, which celebrated Rhode Island’s Black, indigenous and people of color communities and welcomed Brown students, parents, alumni and family members for Family Weekend. A member of the Graduate Student Council, Beenish was one of 18 members of the Brown community invited to participate as WaterFire torch-bearers, a group that gathered at the Providence River Basin for the honor of helping to ignite each of the fires that give the event its name. 

Pervaiz has been to many WaterFire events — the first was when she came to Brown in 2018 to pursue a Ph.D. in political science. This year, she convinced her cohort of fellow graduate students to make a field trip out of it. Pervaiz said she was honored to represent Brown at the weekend’s lighting and participate in the art installation.

“It’s so exciting to be a part of something so historic, that’s such a big part of Providence,” she said. 

Although Pervaiz’s parents, who live in Pakistan, weren’t able to make the trip, she was happy to have her husband, who is working toward his neuroscience degree at Brown, and her friends to join her at WaterFire. It felt like a long time since the last lighting, she said, so the night’s festivities felt like “a breath of fresh air.”

Also representing Brown as a torch-bearer was Class of 2000 graduate Carlos Lejnieks, president of the Brown Alumni Association Board of Governors. He was thrilled to see firsthand how much the event had grown, having been on campus from 1996 to 2000, when WaterFire was in its earliest years.

“I immediately fell in love with it,” Lejnieks said of his initial experience at WaterFire. “It’s one of the best examples in the country of repurposing public space to offer a free, wonderfully creative open-air event that’s accessible to everyone. Metaphorically, it’s a fire that ignites connections between Brown, Providence and visitors from outside the region. Decades later, I still talk about it with great energy.” 

“I’m deeply proud that Brown is an anchor institution for this installment of WaterFire and is taking a leadership role supporting something so critical in our community. And it means a lot to me that I’m able to be a small part of the tradition.”

Carlos Lejnieks, Class of 2000 President of the Brown Alumni Association Board of Governors

As a student, Lejnieks would experience the lights and music on the banks of the river with friends; that’s exactly what he did on Saturday night, after helping to light the fires and kick off the event. 

“I’m deeply proud that Brown is an anchor institution for this installment of WaterFire and is taking a leadership role supporting something so critical in our community,” he said. “And it means a lot to me that I’m able to be a small part of the tradition.”

The pathways and sidewalks outside the Brown parent and family hospitality tent on the city’s Market Square offered one of the best seats in the house for the WaterFire lighting. Families wandered throughout the evening from the riverbanks to the tent area, where they snacked on locally sourced refreshments (including stuffed quahogs, a Rhode Island specialty) while celebrating with other parents and students.

The tent also provided a place for families to rest and relax after the weekend’s full slate of activities. Paula Gilbrook from Rockland, Massachusetts, was sitting and catching up with her granddaughter, Adiza Alasa, a junior studying political science. 

“Twenty years I have been meaning to come to WaterFire!” Gilbrook said with a laugh. “We’re so happy to be here, spending time with Adiza and her friends, and finally have the opportunity to see the event I’ve heard so much about.” WaterFire did not disappoint, she said. 

Among the Brown community members who attended WaterFire was Class of 2023 student Brehan Brady. A native of Westerly, R.I., and a U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, Brady joked that he took a “gap decade” before attending college. With support from the G.I. Bill, he completed his associate’s degree at Community College of Rhode Island, where he was encouraged by faculty and staff to apply to Brown. He attended Family Weekend events on Saturday with his wife and daughter. 

“Being accepted at Brown gave me the opportunity to dive completely into my education, to take advantage of the Open Curriculum and let my interests lead me,” Brady said. “For my daughter, it’s a chance to open her eyes to the possibilities of what’s out there. “Hopefully my education has had a knock-on effect with the way she approaches school.” 

Temperatures in the high 60s and a dramatic night sky provided the ideal setting for Brown’s participation in WaterFire, and as the evening wore on, crowds seemed to swell further. And despite several days packed with engaging events, Brown families talked enthusiastically about plans to explore Providence by firelight.

“The night is early,” Akinton said.