Abroad: In Brown University


In this interview, we find out more about life and culture at Brown University from Hilary Ho (Class of 2015)!

1) What drew you to Brown? After actually attending the university, did your perception of Brown change?

What first drew me to Brown was its Open Curriculum. I personally feel like I’m quite an independent and self-motivated person when it comes to my studies and pursuing things I’m passionate about, so the idea of me being the “architect of my education” appealed to me a lot. I loved the idea of exploring all sorts of subjects because I’m interested in many things, and Brown strikes a nice balance between breadth and depth of the subjects they offer.

I also was quite keen on Brown because it was a small school. I’m not that big on crowds and Greek life and all that, so having that small cosy community of people was something that I looked for in a university.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Brown before I started school, but I really grew to love the school culture. I can’t say what it is like for the other schools, but the Brown community is so supportive and the people here are very thoughtful, insightful and crazy talented! The campus is also really beautiful, which is quite superficial but it might be something one might consider before applying!


2) What is the student culture like at Brown?

The student culture is very liberal. You get all kinds of people here from so many different backgrounds, and if I’m not wrong, our international student population is slightly higher than the other Ivies considering our cohort size. Brown is well-known for being a school where student activism is super prevalent and there’s always stuff going on with regards to social issues, political activism, student-run groups etc. We had walk-outs during the presidential election hype last year, we had rallies going on for indigenous people’s rights (fun fact: at Brown, we call Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day”. The change in name was approved a few years back!) Also, we generally always have stuff in the works to further LGBTQ+ rights, minority/POC rights and women’s rights. Just this winter, I participated in a weeklong social justice camp (my focus was homelessness in Providence) and it was easily the most meaningful thing I’ve done at Brown (and in my entire life I would say) so far.

Brown definitely has a hipster and quirky culture, which can be amazing but also very strange at times. The arts scene is bustling 24/7 and people gather to watch school productions and things like that. Some clubs that are really niche and quirky include Swing Dance Club, Aerial Arts Club, Pole-Dancing Club (they’re called the Poler Bears—because our mascot is Bruno the Bear), Pirate A Cappella, Storytellers Club, and the list goes on and on. I have been for student comedy shows, storyteller shows, poetry slams, musicals, plays, midnight organ concerts, and classical music concerts—there are lots of things happening on campus all the time!

This is just another strange thing that happens at Brown called the Naked Donut Run (#NDR). During finals period, students run through the school libraries naked and give you donut holes. There’s an online list of NDR etiquette guidelines, which I think is pretty funny/strange/interesting. We also have a destress event multiple times throughout the semester called “Heavy Petting” where people bring in dogs, cats, bunnies and other furry creatures for students to play with on the main green—always a good time I must say.


3) What do you think Brown admission officers/alumni interviewers are looking out for specifically in applicants? Is there any specific quality that seems to pervade through the student community?

I personally think that Brown wants students who are motivated, responsible and daring enough to navigate through the Open Curriculum. It is a daunting task to narrow down each semester to 4/5 classes from the thousands that are available, and my guess would be that admission officers want to be sure that students do not come into Brown wasting this academic opportunity by not exploring and moving beyond their comfort zone. At the same time, there’s a lot of uncertainty that comes with the Open Curriculum. Many Brown students are unsure of what they want to concentrate in, and oftentimes the subjects you apply with will somehow change throughout the course of your time here. I sometimes feel like Brown deliberately wants you to not know what to do, which can be really frustrating! But you’ll have a supportive network of academic advisors and student mentors to help you through the process. So if you’re not into exploration then maybe Brown might not be a good fit.


4) What student activities do you participate in?

I mainly play on the women’s Ultimate Frisbee team, I’m an editor for one of the campus literary magazines (the oldest one between Brown and RISD—Rhode Island School of Design) and I’m in the Brown University Merlions (or “BUM” as we like to call it), a community for Singaporean students at Brown. I also try to go for yoga twice a week!

I also applied for a social justice camp called Winter Break Providence! 40 people get chosen across all undergraduate years and for 1 week in winter break before school starts, we get split into different groups dealing with 5 social issues in Providence – Homelessness, Incarceration, Environmental Justice, Public Health, and Education. It is a programme that isn’t centred on volunteering but on understanding different social issues holistically from different points of view e.g. from policy maker, NGO, law enforcement perspectives. It was a really amazing and eye-opening programme and I’m definitely thinking of working with this programme in the future. Right now, I’m working with a little committee I met from this programme to start an art showcase on campus featuring the works of people who have or are experiencing homelessness to kickstart a kind of “social activism through art” campaign.

I’m trying to join one of the community service/volunteering programmes this semester, specifically to ones related to homelessness outreach! Many of my friends are also involved in refugee tutoring, helping out elementary and high school programmes in providence, incarcerated folks etc.

So far I’m not officially involved in any music group but I did play a 30 min set in an acoustic concert last semester! There are really good jazz bands on campus. Brown also has its own record label (Benevolent Records), but that’s fairly new.

In my free time, I like to attend random Brown events that pop up now and then. I attended a talk by an ex-CIA agent on Cold War espionage, sat in for guest authors’ readings, attended a talk by a visiting professor on eugenics and America’s role in the Holocaust, watched a play by a Romanian theatre company… there’s a lot going on!


5) How accessible are research and internship opportunities in Brown for undergraduates pursuing the social sciences?

I personally have not done much research and internship-related things, but there are definitely many of those opportunities for the social sciences! There are many resources available to students interested in work opportunities and research studies. We have a centre called CareerLAB which helps connect you to research and work opportunities, and you could also arrange meetings with the advisers there if you need help with writing cover letters and resumes. I participated in 2 psychology experiments for my Psychology class last semester, so if you go into psychology/cognitive/linguistic sciences, there are loads of research opportunities available. Brown has many independent study programmes where you can come up with your own objectives and research outline for anything you want to investigate. You’d work with a professor and the school funds you for your research! I’m thinking of doing an independent study myself someday—maybe some social issue in Providence with a group, or in Singapore, or even Cambodia (where I volunteer) over the summer. So yes, these opportunities are very accessible and very own-time-own-target!


6) What do you intend to major in at Brown? What are your opinions on the classroom (or equivalent) experience there?

Right now, I intend to double-concentrate (we say “concentration” instead of “major”) in English and Urban Studies. This is always subject to change of course. I did not even know Urban Studies existed but after taking a class, I knew I wanted to learn more! There’s also a distinction between English and Literary Arts here. English is more like the English Lit we are used to. Literary Arts is more creative writing and stuff like that. Urban Studies is kind of a conglomeration of lots of different departments that focus on urbanism. It covers urban planning, geography, sociology, culture, literature, psychology, public policy, political science, economics, history and a lot of other subjects. Last semester, I took a n urban studies class called “crime and the city”, and you could count other non-urban studies courses as requirements for the urban studies concentration. For example, an English class I took last semester called “modernist cities” (which focused on 20th century writers) was listed under the possible concentration prerequisite classes. I could also do a data collection and analysis course by the political science, applied mathematics or psychology department and count that as part of the urban studies concentration. It’s really flexible depending on what part of urbanism you want to focus on!

The classroom experience really depends on what classes you take. The size can range from 10 to 400 people (my German class has 10 people, my Urban Studies one had 400). My English class had 23 students and my Psychology class had 70. I would say the science and math classes have way bigger lectures (especially ones like ‘Introduction to Computer Science’—Computer Science is super popular at Brown), but they also have smaller compulsory lab sessions. Within each department, some classes are big, some are small.

The small classes are really meant for group discussion, and people generally participate actively and give insightful comments. The large ones are more lecture-style. But you can always look for your professors and Teaching Assistants (TAs) during their office hours if you need to talk to them. Language classes are very small and interactive and you cannot escape from class participation. I like to have a mix of both small and large classes so that I do not get overwhelmed with only one kind of classroom environment.

Unless the class is strictly for a certain year (e.g. Freshman/Sophomore Seminars), there will be people from all undergrad years in your classes. Your academic advisor will generally encourage you to ease into the Open Curriculum with First Year Seminars (FYS). There were a lot of advanced classes I was interested in, but my advisor told me to give those a miss in my freshman year. It depends on you and what your advisor tells you!


7) Having experienced the Open Curriculum, what is so special about it that you had not expected before going to Brown?

I heard about the grading system before Brown but experiencing it first-hand is really quite something—you can choose not to have anything graded if you so wish. The grading system is entirely up to you. At the beginning of each semester, you have the option to take a class with letter grades (A is >90, B is >80 and C is >70), or pass/fail (what we colloquially term “S/NC” which stands for “satisfactory/no credit”). The S/NC option is meant to encourage exploration with subject you might not have much experience with, just so you can take that pressure off of getting good grades for something you might be terrible. Last year I took all my classes graded, but I know many people who take languages (and other things they think might not do too well in S/NC), and some classes (e.g. creative writing, visual art) are compulsory S/NC.

Brown also gives students a 2-weeklong “Shopping Period” at the start of each semester which allows students to “shop” all kinds of classes they want before making the decision to narrow down their list of potential classes to the 4/5 they want to take. During this period, students frantically class-hop to see which ones they think suit their academic goals or requirements for the semester. I’d also like to add that Shopping Period is the only time when students can nonchalantly get up and leave the class at any time, without any consequence! I normally shop 7-9 classes during Shopping Period. I know people who tend to shop 13 classes. It’s all up to you!

Last semester, a lot of the stuff I learned in different classes overlapped. At one point, my Urban Studies class was focusing on institutional racism, my Social Psychology class zoomed in on ingroup-outgroup behaviour, and my English class was discussing a novel on discrimination during the Harlem Renaissance in New York. It was really perspective changing/enhancing to look at certain issues through different lenses and make interdisciplinary connections.


8) How does your Brown experience compare with AC life?

Definitely some parallels can be drawn between Brown and AC’s community size and culture. After a while, you tend to see the same few faces in your classes, your friends are friends of friends, and you share stronger bonds with certain sub-communities of people on campus. There are always people you can click with, and if you can’t find them immediately, you will eventually! They will have a way of finding you and vice versa because the school population is not too large and there are many interest groups you can join to find like-minded people.

In university, your relationships with your professors are dependent on how much you choose to interact with them during their Office Hours outside class time, whereas the teachers in AC are in contact with you for much longer so it isn’t that hard to build a rapport with them. Most professors would also be dealing with their own research/admin stuff and working on their own publications, so they won’t be as readily available for consultations as the teachers in AC (e.g. a professor’s office hours could only be 2 hours twice a week).


9) What have you not enjoyed about your Brown experience? What are things that you hope could be improved; and what are the aspects of Brown which you think other universities may have done “better” in?


I will start off by saying that my experience at Brown has been amazing thus far. For me, the positives far outweigh the negatives. But I guess sometimes I feel that the environment can be quite competitive, but not overtly so like the other Ivies. People still worry about getting good grades and everyone studies a lot. It is quite strange… people don’t talk about grades but somehow everyone knows that everyone is working hard. And I guess people (including myself) do lots of extracurricular stuff and involve themselves in so much that people think they are not doing enough and the cycle goes on and on… That can be motivating but also discouraging at times.

Another thing I sometimes get frustrated at is the inertia to get off College Hill (Brown is literally on this hill that separates it from downtown) to explore and connect with the Providence community. Which is why I participated in the social justice programme because I wanted to keep myself in touch with the place I’m living in for 4 years, and also find responsible ways to help out the Providence community while taking into account my privilege and positionality as an “elite” university student. I think a lot of Brown students do not feel much incentive to get off the Hill and connect with the community, which keeps us in this Brown bubble/echo chamber, which can sometimes be a bit toxic. I guess this somewhat overlaps with my AC experience of sometimes feeling disconnected from community happenings because of the privilege we are afforded with.


10) Would the interview focus on what we have done (both academic/non-academic) over the past few years and our takeaways from them? Or will it be focused on current affairs and our views on these issues?

The interviewer’s personality really determines how the interview will go, to be honest—some are more intense, and some are more chill. My interviewer did ask me about the key things I had done in and out of school. My interviewer was particularly interested in my internship experiences (at PMO and MFA) and my career plans. She also asked me what subjects I was interested in, predictable questions like why Brown, why the Open Curriculum etc. She did not really ask me about current affairs at all.

I would say it depends on your interviewer, but just keep it casual because it is really informal. I would advise you to see where the interviewer takes you and go with the flow!


11) Even if we should treat it like a conversation, would it be better to take “rein” of the interview and start seguing to related life experiences/perspectives, or should we try to keep it concise and answer the questions directly?

I personally adopted the “segueing to related life experiences/perspectives” technique, but only because I thought it was awkward to just answer the questions and not say much after that. I asked a lot of my own questions too so it did become like a conversation in the end. My interviews were lots of back and forth and I think asking questions also shows your interest in the school (as long as they are not super obvious things you could have just found on the internet). I guess one way to ask about things that you think might be obvious but want to know more about could go something along the lines of: “I heard about ____ programme, could you tell me a little more?”, so at least the interviewer knows you’ve done some research on the school.


12) What was the hardest question/part about your Brown interview?

The questions about my career plans were tough because I mean, who knows what they want to do right. But overall, I remember my Brown interview being very pleasant and enjoyable and I did not really want it to end because it was just a nice conversation! I asked my interviewer about her personal experiences at Brown and I shared some of my worries about my applications with her and she gave me lots of advice for US applications in general, not just Brown. My interviewer asked me lots of stuff about my personality and whether she thought that would fit with Brown’s culture and curriculum. The interview honestly is just meant to weed out people who seem grossly misaligned with the school philosophy and curriculum, so don’t worry about it too much! Unless you’ve shown yourself to be a bad fit with the school, the interview can only add to your application profile, and won’t do much to blacklist you in the selection process.


Hilary Ho (6.18) is from the graduating batch of 2015. We would like to thank Hilary for her insights, and Lee Tat Wei (6.17, 2016) for conducting the Q&A.

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