Senior Send-off: Finding happiness at the happiest school on Earth

Then + Now

Then + Now

People might know me as: “Merbz,” The Best Mom of the Class of 2014, proud history nerd, or the former Editor-in-Chief of BlogDailyHerald.

…well, at least that’s what people would say at this particular moment in time. My time at Brown hasn’t been characterized by a single or static set of experiences; it’s been a journey of self-discovery, trial-and-error, and exploration.

My friends and I have been thinking and talking a lot about happiness lately. We’ve been actively reflective about how much we’ve changed in these formative four years, and how different we feel from the earlier versions of ourselves who walked through the Gates back in September 2010. As Commencement Weekend creeps closer, I’ve noticed how my sadness about graduating manifests itself in my final days at Brown: trips on trips to (and drinks on drinks at) the GCB, hugs and snuggle sessions, and an active effort not to take any part of Brown for granted. Although it may seem like sadness is the inverse of happiness, this isn’t necessarily so; they are vastly different emotions, but our sadness about leaving this place goes hand in hand with the happiness many of us have developed throughout our time here. As we change contexts and transition from an insulated college campus to the slightly more terrifying “real world,” this sadness and nostalgia for Brown is essentially our happiness in a different form. In other words, it’s an indication that we’ve done as much as we possibly could to make the most of our four years. But happiness isn’t necessarily that simple.

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People never know how to respond when I tell them that I was once on Brown’s Varsity Softball team.

 They take one look at my petite 4’11’’ frame and, after awkwardly chuckling in disbelief, tell me I’m better suited for a Little League team. These people are definitely right: I only lasted one semester (freshman fall) as a Division I athlete, during which I appropriately earned the nickname “PeeWee” from my teammates. But at the moment I arrived on campus as an eager freshman in September, softball was the calculus by which my world operated; I had played the sport since I was five years old, and it was and always had been my passion. Absolutely nothing in the world made me happier than the prospect of engaging with this chosen thing, the sport that made me the happiest person in the world at the happiest school on the planet. At Brown.

What I soon learned was that happiness at Brown didn’t work in the way I had initially expected it to. I walked through the Van Wickle Gates with the assumption that I would immediately be overcome with a profound sense of happiness, almost as if it were something that I would pick up along with my other orientation materials or acquire by drinking the water. Throughout my first semester, as I was trying to get my bearings, establish a routine, and adjust to my new home, I waited and waited for that moment when I would miraculously ascend into a state of perpetual happiness—one that was ostensibly characteristic of the Brunonian experience. I waited for it the classroom, where I engaged with several topics that I thought would strategically prepare me for a career. At FishCo pregames and parties in Keeney and frat basements, where I was to socialize with my friends who had become such out of mere convenience and with whom—without knowing it at the time—I didn’t feel like I could be my true self. In the Ratty among the sea of faces of my fellow freshmen. On the softball field and in the weight room, where I became disillusioned with the world of intercollegiate athletics as my love for the game had devolved into a hate for what had become my least favorite chore. I saw myself as a passive vessel in which happiness would take human form. While I, in theory, was doing all that a freshman was “supposed” to be doing, I felt oddly unfulfilled. I felt this tremendous pressure to have it all figured out. I was at the happiest school on earth, yet I wasn’t happy. It felt as if I was doing the entire Brown experience wrong, and it killed me.

Happiness is something that we seem to talk about often, especially when we pride ourselves on being one of the happiest campuses in the country. What we don’t talk about enough, however, is when our happiness falls short of our own expectations. At all points of our Brown experience—from the beginning of orientation through the final weeks leading up to Commencement—there’s this sense of guilt that we haven’t yet accomplished what we thought we would, cultivated relationships with people who will become our lifelong friends, or taken advantage of everything that an incredible academic institution like Brown has to offer. For not achieving these things, we think people will judge us, or that something is wrong with us, such that we’re afraid to admit that we’re unhappy. But we shouldn’t be.

Sure, happiness is part and parcel of being a Brown student. But perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned throughout my own experience is that Brown students’ happiness comes from their ability to take control over their experiences and make active changes. It’s not that they magically become happy once they become a Brown student; rather, it’s that Brown students are able to effectively navigate their experiences such that they can wholeheartedly embrace the things and people that allow them to be their most passionate selves.

It was only when I went home for my first winter break and reflected on my first few months that I realized that my Brown experience was missing the spark and passion that had made the school so appealing in the first place. I felt restricted by my rigid schedule—as a result, I felt as if I was disengaged and going through the motions rather than throwing myself into my pursuits and enjoying them. Upon returning to campus a few weeks later, I decided to take my happiness into my own hands: I quit the softball team, broadened my social circle, and took several classes across different departments. As I began to cut the toxic things out of my life, the prospect of engaging with the new things made this search for happiness all the more exciting. What I soon realized was that we cannot see happiness as a noun or as a thing, but as an active process. In other words, happiness is not merely assumed; it’s something that we must cultivate and that we earn. This process, however, is not an immediate one—it involves an incredible amount of introspection to determine what’s missing from our experience and how we can go about making it better. Only by being honest with ourselves can we push ourselves to engage with new things—people, activities, classes—and determine what excites us.

In this regard, just as we make our own happiness, we also make our own luck. We can’t be afraid to take chances; personal growth can only happen if we approach new opportunities with a sense of fearlessness. This holds true in all aspects of our lives: in our friendships, relationships, academics, and activities. Seize new opportunities and step outside of your comfort zone all the while being in touch with your wants and needs. Put your feelers out for opportunities that may enhance your experience by complicating it in a good way. As it relates to academics, passions for the liberal arts and pre-professionalism are not mutually exclusive. Don’t let others define how you engage with the countless courses, subjects, departments, and professors; embrace opportunities to engage with the topics about which you are curious. Believe your professors and advisors when they tell you that the Brown education and liberal learning provide essential tools that we can leverage in all aspects of our lives, including the professional ones.

This search for passion also holds true in regard to extracurricular activities. After trying to fill the extracurricular void that softball had left, I experimented with a variety of activities, yet none excited me. It was with this aforementioned fearlessness and open-mindedness that I decided to go to the activities fair and seek out other opportunities as a first-semester sophomore. I put my name down on BlogDailyHerald’s spreadsheet and decided to apply on a whim. Little did I know that this seemingly simple action would single-handedly revolutionize my college experience. What seemed to me to be a distant ideal ending up becoming the most influential force in my time at Brown.

Once I was in, I was hooked. From the time I was a writer as a sophomore to my final semester as “Chairwoman of the Board,” BlogDH was and has been my passion: it has been a lens through which I can engage with campus life and be part of a community of writers who create a virtual community by defining what it means to have a unique Brunonian identity. This identity, of course, has been crafted by creating synergy between Brunonian and broader cultural nuances, blowing up and zooming in on campus niceties, and placing a premium on the aspects of and people at Brown that we often take for granted. BlogDailyHerald has not only crafted a Brown-specific identity over the course of its five years of existence, but it also has helped me shape my own—by serving on Blog’s editorial board for four semesters and as EIC for two, I’ve constantly learned from and engaged with both the BlogDH community—who, over the past two and a half years, has become my family—and the Brown community at large. I’ve achieved an unparalleled level of happiness that comes from a multi-faceted engagement with the Brunonian experience, and with the most incredible humans on staff who live and breathe for bear heads, this emoji, free food, Mean Girlsheavy petting, Dave Binder, and Katherine Bergeron. Y’all are 2sick and I love you a lot. <3

The best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten about the college experience was from another one of these “Senior Send-off” posts by the EIC of BlogDH back in the spring semester of 2012, Jenny Bloom. I was a sophomore at the time, and her words about individual achievement struck a chord: “Mark your distance. Four years is a long time to live in one place. You need to create ways to distinguish the semesters from each other. You don’t have to take a linear path to the top; quit if something just isn’t right anymore, but make more conscious decisions — they are freeing.” By marking our distance in this way, we become fully aware of how we’ve achieved our happiness; we can determine what forces in our lives either cause us discomfort and stress or contribute to our overall sense of well-being. We can continue along a path where we seek out similar types of opportunities that give us a sense of purpose and fulfillment. To this end, we should actively look back and reflect on the people we were when we walked through the Gates, and how we’ve evolved from semester to semester and from year to year. Another one of Jenny’s points was to remind ourselves that we walked in as ____ and are leaving as ____. In doing this, we can see how our happiness has contributed to a meaningful four years of growth.

Happiness is a process of learning from failure and making adjustments. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the most valuable lesson I learned during my time at Brown is inextricably linked to softball, the game that had initially made me so unhappy at Brown in the first place. Softball is a game that’s predicated on failure—you’re a good player if you have batting average of .300, which means that you fail seven out of 10 times. When you fail in the batter’s box, you have to actively work to make adjustments—to your swing, your timing, your trigger, your tracking—to ensure that you succeed (i.e. get on base). Achieving happiness at Brown is characterized by a similar a process of trial-and-error: of pin-pointing the problem and working toward a solution, determining what feels wrong and making the appropriate adjustments until you get it right. This, of course, doesn’t happen overnight: it’s a process that involves patience, perseverance, and practice. Only through this analysis of what’s holding us back and preventing us from being happy are we able to hit that walk-off homerun and achieve a level of happiness—one that comes from taking risks and embracing the people and things that contribute to our overall sense of well-being—that no one can ever, ever take away from us.

With endless amounts of love and happiness,
Merbz

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