Date September 10, 2022
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At 259th Opening Convocation, Brown opens its gates to a new class

As students commenced their Brown academic careers, President Christina H. Paxson and Dean of the School of Engineering Tejal Desai urged them to seek out new perspectives and immerse themselves in research.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Excited cheers, applause and the sound of bagpipes drowned out city noise, and smiles shined brighter than the sun as Brown University President Christina H. Paxson, Dean of the School of Engineering Tejal Desai and fellow University leaders welcomed 3,203 new undergraduate, graduate and medical students to Brown on Saturday, Sept. 10.

The 259th annual Opening Convocation, which marked the symbolic launch of the 2022-23 academic year, celebrated a group of incoming students who traveled from every corner of the globe to attend the University. After a busy week spent moving into residence halls and apartments, attending Orientation programs and saying goodbye to loved ones, students had the opportunity to commemorate a new life chapter and contemplate their academic goals.

Due to heavy rains and flooding in Providence early in the week, Brown hosted the ceremony four days later than originally scheduled. The decision to reschedule rather than move indoors ensured that every student had the chance to participate in a lively procession through the iconic Van Wickle Gates, which open only for Convocation and Commencement exercises.

Ten years ago, during her first Convocation as Brown’s president, Paxson said heavy rains prohibited a class march through the gates and forced the ceremony to migrate indoors to the Pizzitola Sports Center — “which is great if you’re going to a basketball or volleyball game, but it’s not for this,” she said, gesturing toward the thousands of new students gathered under a cloudless sky on the College Green. “During the pandemic, we learned that we can be flexible, so we decided to change Opening Convocation to this beautiful, glorious day.”

In her opening address, Paxson extolled the importance of learning from fellow students, taking time and care to revel in the discoveries and experiences that people from a wide array of backgrounds bring to campus. She noted that Brown’s new students represent nearly every socioeconomic group, political persuasion, religious affiliation and cultural background.

As students, you have the opportunity, and in fact you are strongly encouraged, to be full partners in this great enterprise of knowledge creation.

Christina H. Paxson President of Brown University
Christina Paxson delivers Convocation remarks

“Each of you has a unique personal story and a distinctive set of talents that brought you here,” Paxson said. “It’s this diversity — the blending of stories, ideas and talents across multiple dimensions — that creates the richness of your learning experiences. But if students feel that they have to conform — that they can’t be themselves and fully express themselves — then that ability to learn from each other is squandered.”

Do not let that happen, she urged: “Share your experiences and views with confidence, even if others do not agree. Listen to and learn from others with humility and respect. Brown is a kind community. We place a premium on treating others with dignity. Kindness need not and should not be at odds with being the vibrant and intellectually open campus from which we all benefit.”

Paxson also implored students to immerse themselves in research, as early and as often as possible.

“The professors you will get to know in the coming weeks don’t just teach classes,” she said. “They write books that inform us about the most important issues of the day. They run scientific laboratories that lead to advances in medicine, public health and technology. They create art that helps us understand ourselves, and each other, better. As students, you have the opportunity, and in fact you are strongly encouraged to be full partners in this great enterprise of knowledge creation.”

Teams of undergraduates routinely work with faculty and graduate students in labs, archives and in the field. Together, they use their research to confront some of the world’s most pressing issues, from air pollution in Providence to biodiversity in the Galapagos Islands to links between underfunded public defender programs and high incarceration rates, she said.

Student process through the Van Wickle Gates
At its 259th Opening Convocation, Brown welcomed more than 1,700 first-year students.

Brown’s focus on research was one of the top factors that motivated Mia-Nathalie Pridgen, a first-year student who helped lead the Class of 2026 Convocation procession, to choose Brown. The University is one of the few schools to offer an undergraduate concentration in computational biology, Pridgen said, and Brown seemed like the perfect place to advance her love of biological sciences through an innovative, tech-centered approach.

Pridgen prepared for her academic career earlier this summer as a participant in both the Brown Center for Students of Color’s Third World Transition Program as well as the Mosaic+ Transition Program — a program for newly admitted students interested in learning more about computer science, with an emphasis on being a receptive and inclusive space for community members from racial or ethnic backgrounds that are historically underrepresented. 

“These programs create a diverse group of students,” Pridgen said. “I’m really excited to be able to find and cultivate my community here at Brown and make friends for life.”

Pridgen has already seen the bonds that can be forged at Brown — her father is a Class of 1986 alumnus — and she said she looks forward to returning to College Hill during future Commencement and Reunion Weekends, where she and her father will be on the same alumni reunion schedule. 

Whether it’s in a lab or out in the field, Paxson said the experiences of undergraduate students engaging in research “can be life-changing and often vault students into the work that they continue throughout their lives.”

That was certainly the case for Convocation keynote speaker Tejal Desai, the newly arrived dean of the School of Engineering who earned a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering at Brown in 1994. “With such broad, interdisciplinary work — a hallmark of the Brown education — it’s no surprise that she began her higher education journey right here on College Hill,” Paxson said of Desai.

Boundaries worth breaking

Having joined Brown this semester from the University of California San Francisco, Desai is an accomplished biomedical engineer with research spanning multiple disciplines from materials engineering to cell biology, tissue engineering and pharmacological delivery systems to develop new therapeutic interventions for disease.

In an address titled, “Breaking Boundaries and Building Bridges through Community and Collaboration,” Desai spoke directly to the University’s newest class.

“You are a group who are poised to redefine the boundaries of what we know and what we work on, to push the boundaries of ideas that often divide us, and break down the boundaries that limit our connection and community,” she said.

Desai grew up in Southern California, the daughter of parents who emigrated from India.

“I was one of a handful of Asian Americans at my high school in the late ’80s and was constantly reminded of unspoken boundaries — invisible barriers that limited who could participate and who could not,” she said. “ So when it was time to think about college, I jumped at the chance to leave what I knew to find a community where boundaries could be pushed and barriers broken down.”

That was the community Desai found at Brown. Beyond the Open Curriculum, a factor that drew her to the University initially, Desai said she was struck by the mindset of interdisciplinary education and dialogue she encountered as an engineering student. Previously, she had felt as though the worlds of engineering and social change were in conflict.

“But later …  I realized that as an engineer, I had both tools and knowledge to impact society for the better,” she said. “I saw how critical it was to understand scientific problems and processes within the larger context of the humanities and arts, but also the importance of pursuing humanities and arts with a grounding in the impact of technology in society.”

It wasn’t easy, Desai noted. Her classes were tough, and at one point, an advisor told her to consider switching concentrations — a devastating proposition. Rather than give up on her dream, she sought a mentor at Brown who engaged her in research and reignited her confidence to continue.

Asking for help, receiving that help, and collaborating with those around her to topple barriers and pave the road for the students who would follow her, Desai said she was determined to not let others feel the way she did that first year — to feel that they aren’t good enough. 

Now, decades later, it’s that same disruption of boundaries that drew Desai back to Brown.

“I have realized that we all have a responsibility to redefine and ultimately reshape the boundaries that limit the success of those around us,” she said. “Remember that at the heart of what we all do is humanity — understanding how we choose to impact others.”

On Saturday, that shared humanity united every single student sitting on the College Green: the 1,211 doctoral and master’s students; 144 medical students; 104 transfer students; 10 Resumed Undergraduate Education students; and, of course, the 1,721 incoming first-years who comprise the Brown’s undergraduate Class of 2026.

“No matter what journey you take, I hope you keep using your voice, staying true to your values, and keep pushing the boundaries when necessary,” Desai said.