Date April 30, 2024
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Senior orators to extol community, collaboration and care at Brown’s 256th Commencement

In keeping with a Brown tradition that dates back more than two and a half centuries, seniors Marielle Buxbaum and Caziah Mayers will address their fellow graduates on Sunday, May 26.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Soon-to-be Brown University graduates Marielle Buxbaum and Caziah Mayers know there are multiple ways to tell a story.

For Buxbaum, who will earn a bachelor’s degree in literary arts and theatre arts and performance studies, it might be a play; for Africana studies and computer science concentrator Mayers, it might a program. Regardless of the medium, the goal is to strike a chord and make a connection — something each of them will aim to do as seniors orators at Brown University’s 256th Commencement.

When they deliver them on Sunday, May 26, their orations will become part of a centuries-old Brown tradition of elevating student voices at Commencement. Buxbaum and Mayers were selected through a rigorous review process, which began with a call for nominations and submission of sample speeches. A selection committee then invited top candidates to deliver their proposed addresses earlier this semester.

Buxbaum and Mayers will speak directly to fellow members of the Class of 2024 during the University Ceremony. Though their orations will be separate, they are woven together by a common thread celebrating the community, connection and care that Buxbaum and Mayers uncovered during their time on College Hill.

Marielle Buxbaum: ‘I can’t imagine being anywhere else besides Brown for these past four years’

As a high school student, Marielle Buxbaum was determined to forge her own path within her family. For one thing, she didn’t want to attend the same college as her older sister, Rebecca, who was studying at Brown. 

But a single trip from the family’s home outside of Philadelphia to visit her sister on campus in 2018 changed her mind. Buxbaum was particularly inspired by a Theatre Arts and Performance Studies production of the musical “Next to Normal,” which follows a suburban family as it copes with the crisis of a mother’s worsening bipolar disorder. 

“I kept thinking about how much I wanted to study theater in a very academic way — the way it’s done at Brown,” said Buxbaum, who is concentrating in theatre arts and performance studies, as well as literary arts. “Looking back now, I can’t imagine being anywhere else besides Brown for these past four years.”

Since Opening Convocation in her first days on campus, Buxbaum has stretched herself academically and artistically, exploring the ways storytelling in theatre, film and television can bring individuals together to foster community and spark social change.

While her classes and extracurricular activities have offered a multifaceted look at those professions, including acting and directing, Buxbaum is most interested in writing for stage and screen. She is especially drawn to using comedy to explore divisive political, social and cultural issues.

Buxbaum’s thesis project, for example, is a satirical play titled “The Hummus Wars.” It is fictional but based on the 2010 competition between chefs in Israel and Lebanon to get into the “Guinness Book of World Records” for creating the largest tub of hummus, highlighting the debate over which nation could claim ownership of the dish. She first learned about the event while conducting research for a first-year seminar at Brown, held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, about the role of art in diplomacy.

Brown students are ambitious about a lot of things, but if we are going to change the world, we’ve got to be just as ambitious about making connections with others.

Marielle Buxbaum Senior Orator
Marielle smiling in white and teal colorblock sweater

“Writing about hummus became my way in, as an American Jew who had struggled with the issues of Israel and Palestine growing up, to figuring out how I could participate in creating justice,” Buxbaum said.

She traveled to Jerusalem and the West Bank in the summer of 2022 to conduct research for the play and was inspired by the stories she heard from people she met, including a woman who struggled with a decision to move to Gaza for love and a Palestinian food tour guide who said he “really believed that the play could be important.” The three-week trip, she said, was a profoundly emotional experience that confirmed her passion for using theater as a catalyst for conversation about even the most contentious topics.

“The process of collecting experiences and stories and collaborating with Israelis and Palestinians was very beautiful, and I learned a lot about how to develop one of my main characters, who, like me, is an American Jew coming to Jerusalem,” she said.

In Fall 2023, Buxbaum worked with a diverse group of collaborators, including performance studies scholar Lisa Biggs, an assistant professor of Africana studies, to stage a reading of the play at the Department of Africana Studies’ renowned Rites and Reason Theatre. “I’m so grateful for all of the professors at Brown who have been so excited to support unusual, outside-of-the-box projects by students,” Buxbaum said.

Last year, through a study abroad program in Ecuador, she immersed herself in storytelling about another complex issue: the politics of migration. Living in a sugarcane producing community in the Amazon rainforest, Buxbaum worked on a community-based project that explored through theater the culture’s long history of migration to the United States and its profound effects on families.

“The play was coming directly from the community, with people portraying their own family stories, and, in some cases, what was happening in their lives at that very moment,” she said. “It was not a theater experience I ever had before, and I saw the vitality and actual impact that the arts could have.”

After graduation, with support from a Fulbright award, Buxbaum plans to return to Ecuador — this time to the capital, Quito — to design a program focused on playwriting for social change.

But first, she will address her peers at Commencement in an address inspired by her experiences in Ecuador, the Middle East and Providence. Focusing on the role of community in creating social change and the unprecedented challenge of starting college during a pandemic, Buxbaum plans to urge fellow graduates to be as ambitious about friendship as they are about other things in life, like academic success and career goals.

“A lot of us are probably scared of how hard it might be to make friends after the graduation, and many of us have heard about the loneliness epidemic, so I want to talk about that,” Buxbaum said. “Brown students are ambitious about a lot of things, but if we are going to change the world, we’ve got to be just as ambitious about making connections with others."

Caziah Mayers: ‘Your community is here; you just have to find it’

When Caziah Mayers came to Brown, they wanted to become who they are. Four years later, they’re making sure every student has that same opportunity.

Growing up in Brooklyn as the child of immigrants in a “hypermasculine” Caribbean community, Mayers said they sometimes felt judged, stifled or otherwise discouraged to explore their identity and their interests — which ran the gamut from poetry to computer science. “But at a place like Brown, I could think through all of these things, grow into myself, then help do that for others,” they said.

Mayers originally wanted to study language and linguistics in computer science, but after taking a few Africana studies courses, they were struck by how connected the two disciplines could be. The flexibility to pursue both fields of study led Mayers to develop a keen research interest in Black digital humanities, examining how different types of technologies interface with Black people specifically, and what it means for society.

As a teaching assistant in instructor Tim Nelson’s software engineering course, Mayers said they didn’t take lightly the fact that they were helping to train the next generation of engineers, and the two regularly discussed how to get students to think critically about the impacts of coding. Those conversations eventually led to the revamping of a data visualization project of the city of Providence, comparing modern-day neighborhood boundaries to neighborhoods delineated by redlining in the 1930s.

“Coding isn’t just about making the next Facebook,” Mayers said. “With this project, we were able to see the legacy of systems and how it’s still affecting people almost a century later. We can use technology to tell these stories.” 

Informed by their research in the classroom and bolstered by their own experiences, Mayers also tells those stories through the arts.

In addition to recording and producing their own music under the moniker Cazir, they’ve long been involved in the poetry scene. At Brown, Mayers found their place within WORD!, a student performance poetry group they said played a massive role in helping them navigate their early college experience.

Investing in your well-being — and the well-being of others — is what is going to help you get through ... Even if you’ve had to do a lot of stuff alone, Brown doesn’t have to be one of them.

Caziah Mayers Senior Orator
Caziah Mayers smiles with head tilted

“Whether they had the same background, or they had a different background but similar identity, were Black, were queer — whatever the case, I was surrounded by so many people who were able to provide both artistic and general mentorship,” they said.

But after two years of performing, Mayers said they felt ready to step into the role of mentor rather than mentee, and they knew exactly how to do it: by organizing the renewal of Students of Caribbean Ancestry, a student organization on campus. The existence of the group was one of the things that originally drew them to Brown, but its activity had all but dissolved over the course of the pandemic.

“So that's really what all of junior year became about,” said Mayers, who served as the group’s president. “I was very concerned with making it as welcoming for a person like me as it could be, but also for people who are not like me. I needed to develop a space that I knew would be queer-friendly and culturally Caribbean, because those two things are not in opposition.”

Their efforts were more successful than expected, and the group brought back a variety of events like game nights, mixers, mental health workshops, carnivals and more. An event co-hosted with the Brown Concert Agency even earned Students of Caribbean Ancestry a collaboration award from Brown’s Student Activities Office — one of the things Mayers said they’re most proud of, looking back on their time on campus.

The other thing Mayers is most proud of? Asking for help, even when it’s hard.

After suffering a devastating family loss in the middle of their junior year, Mayers did just that. They were immediately embraced by the community — not just the ones they had spent time cultivating over the last few years, but all of Brown.

“I had people who were willing to say, ‘Of course we will help you,’” Mayers said. “Not because they knew me from poetry, or I was their classmate or whatever — but because I was somebody who needed help. It was one of those moments that made me believe in humanity.”

The speech Mayers will deliver at Commencement will serve as both a thank-you to the class they call “some of the most hardworking and compassionate people” they’ve ever met, and a call to action for future Brunonians. 

“Investing in your well-being — and the well-being of others — is what is going to help you get through,” Mayers said. “Your community is here; you just have to find it. Even if you’ve had to do a lot of stuff alone, Brown doesn’t have to be one of them.”