I saw the horror flashing across the faces of the women crowded above me as I slipped down, backwards into the crack between the moving bus and the platform.
“Reserved for 2:00 Ceremony”
This was the sign placed on the rows of seats where my family had initially chosen to view what was one of the most significant moments in our lives.
It was May 25th, the day I would finally graduate from Brown University. The final procession of our daylong graduation was about to begin as we dispersed to our respective locations for our departmental ceremonies, where we would finally be handed our degrees. However, minutes before the start of my ceremony my family was commanded to relinquish their seats in order to accommodate my more well-known classmate: Emma Watson.
My five family members had arrived at the ceremony’s location an hour ahead of schedule to ensure they would get good seating. Reviewing the opaque "Reserved" signs, they concluded that the seats were reserved for guests of the English Department’s 2:00 ceremony, including family members. As a timid person, I myself would have erred on the side of caution here and chosen to sit elsewhere. However, I can understand why my family members thought that it would be okay to sit in this section. The sign was vague, I would guess because the administration did not want to draw attention to the fact that it was extending privileges to one student and not the other 30 some odd graduates whose families had gathered for this commemorative event.
Neither of my parents had finished college and the boasting joy they felt at having a daughter graduate from an Ivy League school had always made me shrink. But today, I decided to embrace their swelling pride. Despite the blisters forming on the back of my ankles from my uncomfortable heels and the impatience I felt at posing for yet another picture, I tried to remind myself that this day was not about me. The show was for our families, and mine had gone to great lengths to support me throughout college.
Unfortunately, the show was about to be disrupted for my family. A few minutes before the ceremony was set to begin, a team of Brown University security officers approached my family and several others who had been sitting in this section and demanded that they relocate immediately. When my notoriously outspoken sister inquired why they were being forced to move, the officers offered no greater explanation than, “This section is reserved for VIPs.” Thinking the “very important persons” were faculty members, my family complied. Luckily they found different seats, however they were forced to split up and instead take in the moment disjointedly. Thankfully I knew nothing of this until dinner, otherwise it would have dampened my experience.
I will be the first to concede that no, this is not a great injustice.
No matter where my family watched the procession I still graduated from a prestigious university and am fortunate to have the means to say so. But I want to shed light on the fact that the school I graduated from that day is not the same school I applied to.
In some ways, Brown turned out to be greater than I had once imagined. The faculty I was lucky enough to learn from deserves nothing less than the highest praise. The student body is as impassioned as the media persistently makes us out to be. However, in other ways Brown has failed to uphold many of the ideals that inspired me to apply as an eager college senior.
Hailing from one of the most conservative states, I wanted to leave Texas in hopes for a more liberal, progressive oasis. And Brown is tireless in marketing themselves as one of the most progressively minded campuses in the country.
Despite this, within the last year Brown has received much criticism from its own students for mishandling a variety of significant issues. Instead of moving its progressive agenda forward, Brown has taken actions that move us backward as a campus -- a campus that others look to for social progress. In light of such larger controversies, this moment where my family was unrightfully displaced seems microscopic, and it is. But because of the sacrifices my family has made for my education, I won’t let it go unnoted.
My diploma ceremony was the crowning event of my education at Brown University and looking back on that day, my family and those others who shared this degrading treatment will remember the disrespect they experienced at Brown’s hand. This was, as of yet, the biggest day of my life, and Brown’s administration made me feel small. It made my family feel small.
I do not know who signed off on these arrangements, but this should not have been allowed. It seems greatly unfair that one student should be granted privileges that have been withheld from others. Every single one of my peers worked tirelessly for four years to earn our English degrees, and our families did as well. As such, we all deserve equal treatment and equal recognition of our efforts.
However, only Emma Watson was allowed to reserve a section for her guests. Evidently, she was the only person considered “important” at our ceremony. Why wasn’t I allowed to reserve seats for my family members? Had I not completed the same degree requirements as my famous peer? Had I not paid the same tuition as she? What made me less of a Brown University graduate than her?
The most obvious answer I can think of is this: endowment. Perhaps because the university views certain students as more likely to contribute to the endowment in the future, they feel these individuals warrant special treatment -- they are more valuable financially and therefore of more personal worth than someone like me or my mother or my father.
Maybe it’s not about money though. Maybe it’s more about fame. However, I refuse to believe that my university could be that superficial, to privilege the celebrity. Then again, many of my illusions about Brown have been shattered, so who knows? I certainly don’t.
As I was packing to leave Providence a few days later, I picked up my diploma to pack it away gently in my carry on. Holding it between my hands, I felt proud. I felt relieved. But I also felt a little disenchanted by the hypocrisy of my alma mater. I’ve long known that education is in fact not the great equalizer. But I was led to believe that my university was an institution paving the way to making this idealistic philosophy more true in our society.
Unfortunately, the occasional disregard for and mistreatment of its students and their families prove quite the contrary.