A Student Review of Brown University

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Joshua is a Boston tutor specializing in English tutoring, Middle School Math tutoring, SAT Critical Reading tutoring, and a number of other areas. He is currently a senior at Brown University majoring in Classics and Slavic Studies. See what he had to share about Brown University:

VT: Describe the campus setting and transportation options. How urban or safe is the campus? Are there buses or do you need a car/bike?

Joshua: At Brown University, we have what is called an “open campus.” This means that we are in the middle of the city, and public streets cross through campus. However, the majority of the campus buildings are on College Hill, which has developed into one of the safest, most heavily residential areas in the city. Every city has its risks, of course, but for the most part, if you walk around at night alone  – even downtown – you will be fine. We also have a dedicated campus security department. Providence is serviced by a public bus system that stretches across all of Rhode Island, and it is free to Brown University students. Campus itself is on the small side, so almost every building is within easy walking/biking distance, but if students wish to go downtown, they can use the bus.

VT:  How available are the professors, academic advisers, and teaching assistants?

Joshua: This depends on the specific instructors, but my general experience has been very positive. Professors and teaching assistants will set up limited office hours at the beginning of a semester, but they are generally very willing and flexible in their efforts to meet with students who cannot make those times. Academic advisers typically do not hold regular office hours for their advisees – they meet with them on an as-needed basis. But they take their responsibilities seriously, and they make an effort to meet with students as soon as they can. There are always exceptions to the rule, but if someone is stuck with an unresponsive adviser, the procedure for switching to a new adviser is straightforward and easy.

VT: How would you describe the dorm life – rooms, dining options, location, socialization opportunities with other students?

Joshua: For the most part, I would characterize dorm life as whatever you make of it. You probably will not become life-long best friends with your freshman roommate, but I have heard very few stories of students who had such toxic relationships with their roommates that they had to switch. It will likely be on the spectrum somewhere between neutral and positive. The first week of school is especially crucial for building relationships within your dorm – there are multiple mixers and events to foster a sense of community, and the more socially confident residents will likely form social circles during this time. After that, it is easy to come under the false assumption that it is too late to break in and join your neighbors, but this does not have to be true. Almost all Brown University students – especially as freshmen – are very friendly, polite, and generally excited just to be there. If you put yourself out there and make an effort to spend time with people, you will probably make some friends. You can also make plenty of friends through classes and extracurriculars!

Dorm locations for freshmen have been consolidated now to group all freshmen into one of two areas on campus, both close to at least one of the two major cafeterias. None of the dorms are that impressive, to be honest. They are sort of what you would expect from a college dorm. Upperclassmen have slightly better options, but most of the dorms are on the old side and reflect that in their design. Do not expect a hotel, but you can definitely personalize your room to make it more homey.

Dining options follow the same general logic as above: students can always find something to eat, but they generally try to mix it up so they do not become bored. Brown University does offer several types of dining halls – standard cafeterias, library carts (for coffee, muffins, etc.), and smaller, late-night options. The meal plan is overpriced, of course, but you learn to make the most of the complicated system of “credits” and “points.” No dorm is too far from any dining hall, and food is available in at least one dining hall from roughly 7:00 am to 2:00 am.

VT: Which majors/programs are best represented and supported? What did you study and why? Did the university do a good job supporting your particular area of study?

Joshua: I believe the largest concentrations are Economics and International Relations, but Brown University gives exceptional support to all its concentrations. It even allows students to create independent concentrations! Brown University is truly a liberal arts school, even if more and more students are drifting toward STEM concentrations. My only knock against Brown University’s system is that it does not allow for minors. I double-concentrated in Classics and Slavic Studies, but I also took multiple theater courses on the side. That is another great thing about the Brown University curriculum, actually – it’s an “open curriculum,” meaning there are no core requirements. Students can fill their schedules entirely with classes they want to take.

VT: How easy or difficult was it for you to meet people and make friends as a freshman? Does Greek life play a significant role in the campus social life?

Joshua: I touched on this a little bit before when talking about dorms, but making friends as a freshman is simultaneously one of the easiest and hardest things I have ever done. The entire transition to college is often overwhelming, so the prospect of immediately beginning to form some of the strongest friendships of your life can be very daunting. I am not the most talkative person, so I usually take a little while to grow into a friendship. My roommate and I got along fine, but we had different enough interests and personalities that we never “clicked.” I actually joined the crew team during the fall of my freshman year, and I used that as my primary social outlet (before quitting in the spring to focus on classes). My core group of friends did not start to form until the start of my second semester, but all it took was taking one friend up on an invitation to hang out with some of his friends. Through him, I met some great people, and though only a few of them became lasting friends, I made more friends through them. College – and life, I suppose – is very much a game of Six Degrees of Separation. It takes some effort to make and maintain friendships, but you can continue to do so throughout all four years, so it helped for me to keep that in mind those first few weeks.

Greek life has a fairly small social presence at Brown University. This is due to an agreement made decades ago with a school president who forced all social houses to relocate to campus housing. The lack of independence forces them to abide by campus rules more strictly than if they were off-campus. Most Greek members who I have met have had very positive experiences with their respective fraternities or sororities, and our program houses are predicated upon groups of students with a common interest (e.g. African culture and heritage, or computer technology). The Greek houses do throw parties (which have to be pre-approved by the school), and they are often quite fun and popular. But as students’ social networks grow, they more frequently tend toward parties thrown by people they know.

VT: How helpful is the Career Center and other student support services? Do many reputable companies recruit on campus? 

Joshua: Brown University’s reputation as an Ivy League school is not lost on corporate recruiters, and we have multiple, large career fairs and recruiting sessions populated by many reputable companies and nonprofits. The CareerLAB, as it is called, is an excellent resource that most students probably do not take enough advantage of. They will help with resumes, cover letters, and tips for interviews and LinkedIn profiles, but they also host specific events and workshops oriented toward preparing students for case studies or particular careers. They also help with providing resources to search for jobs.

VT: How are the various study areas such as libraries, the student union, and dorm lounges? Are they over-crowded, easily available, spacious?

Joshua: Although there are many study spots on campus, there are relatively few that are actually designated as such. We have two main libraries, two smaller libraries, and scattered sections in other campus buildings. That said, students do not lack for desks or tables when they wish to study, except sometimes during finals week. Depending on what class a student is taking, they might also work on a project in the Engineering or CIT (Center for Information Technology) building where they have specific resources more readily available to them. Some students also study in their rooms, but dorm lounges have never been a common study spot in my years at Brown University. They are generally too small and uncomfortable to serve as anything other than late-night hangouts.

VT: Describe the surrounding town. What kinds of outside establishments / things to do are there that make it fun, boring, or somewhere in between? To what extent do students go to the downtown area of the city versus staying near campus? 

Joshua: Brown University tour guides like to talk about efforts to make sure students are not in a “bubble” on campus (i.e. isolated from the rest of the city), but that is definitely the case for many people. It is easy enough to get caught up in everything going on on campus that the prospect of wandering downtown for anything besides shopping or food seems burdensome. This is a testament both to Brown University’s ability to provide a social life through its student life and extracurriculars, but also to students’ general lack of knowledge about the rest of the city.

This is a pity, because Providence is a great city. It actually has a very vibrant arts scene best symbolized by WaterFire, a seasonal art installation on the Providence River. Providence also has fantastic restaurants, as well as other generally interesting things going on. I myself have more exploring to do.

VT: How big or small is the student body? Were you generally pleased or displeased with the typical class sizes?

Joshua: The student body is growing every year, I believe, but it is somewhere between 6,000-7,000 undergraduates, with a total enrollment of between 8,000-9,000 (including graduate school and medical school). This means the emphasis is definitely on the undergraduate experience. One way that I like to describe Brown University is that it is just small enough that if you are walking through campus, you will probably see at least one person you know, but you will also see new faces in almost every class you take.

Class sizes vary depending on whether it is a lecture or a seminar, but most professors know how to teach to their class size. I have been in classes with five students and classes with close to 200 students. The worst class size is probably the small lecture class, where the class is small enough that you can pick out every student present, but the teacher lectures because there are too many students to have a discussion-based class. But that is only my preference, of course. Some friends of mine really dislike seminars. It all depends on the professor, ultimately.

VT: Describe one memorable experience with a professor and/or class. Perhaps one you loved the most or one you regret the most.

Joshua: I admit that I was not always a model student in college. Most students aren’t. Classes are important, but college is an experience in many other ways, as well. The most important thing you can learn is to balance priorities and interests.

In any case, I took Introduction to Neuroscience my sophomore year, because Brown University has an excellent Neuroscience department, and I had heard good things about the class. It was supposed to be interesting, but easy – very much simple memorization. I opted to take it pass/fail (which is possible at Brown University), and I went to maybe half of the lectures before the first midterm, reading along in the textbook at home. (“Midterms” at Brown University do not describe an exam midway through the term, but rather any major unit test; this class had three midterms and a final.)

As the semester wore on, I grew less and less engaged with the material, and I gradually showed up to class and did the reading less often. My subsequent midterm studying consisted of pulling all-nighters to learn some or most of the material for the first time. I had to pull the biggest cram session of my life studying before the final to actually pass the class (to the continuing amusement of my Neuroscience concentrator friends who all got As in the class, of course).

So although I got the credit and the grade I wanted, I ultimately learned very little from the class, and I regret that. It was a waste of my time, energy, and money. I should have either focused on finding a class that interested me more or buckled down and tried to make the most of this one.

Check out Joshua’s tutoring profile.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.