Being a native Rhode Islander at Brown is rather unique. Most students come from other states or countries. In fact, less than 10% of undergraduates at Brown are from Rhode Island, while around 15% are international students. When walking around the Brown campus, it’s literally more common to run into someone from another country than to meet a local. In spite of having grown up on the outskirts of Providence my whole life, I never realized this bubble of diversity within the smallest state existed until I entered it as a staff member in 2007.
I am not your stereotypical Rhode Islander. When I graduated from high school, most of my friends stayed local and went to one of the public state schools. Some people went to other states, others didn’t go to school at all. Maybe one or two people from my school went to Brown or RISD. As far as I know, I was the only one who left the country to go to undergrad. I spent four years at McGill University in Montreal, learning more than ever about life in general, how to live independently and what people from other countries thought of Americans.
It was a rude awakening, but I adapted seamlessly. I returned to my home state a completely different person. I had quickly lost my Rhode Island accent and established a more Canadian demeanor.
Even people from my own state didn’t recognize me as a New Englander. When I started working (and later studying) at Brown, people were surprised to learn that I was originally from Providence, spending the first 18 years of my life less than 4 miles from the university. I went from embarrassingly admitting that I was an American when I lived in Montreal to being proud to say that I was a true local here.
I was very sad to leave Montreal, and didn’t want to become stuck in Rhode Island again. However, coming to Brown made me realize that you don’t have to venture very far to feel like you’re in a different country. As soon as I step onto Brown’s campus I feel like I could be in any big city that attracts academia-type people from all over the world. The diversity and different perspectives of faculty and staff as well as students is refreshing. It’s almost the same experience as I had as a student at McGill, except that everyone here knows where Rhode Island is (and nobody will make you feel bad about where you came from).
Being from Rhode Island in a different country can be challenging when someone asks where you’re from, but being from Rhode Island at Brown is almost charming. When I travel abroad (and often even within the US), I usually have to tell people where I’m from relative to a huge city that everyone knows. It seems that nobody has heard of Rhode Island, and if they do act like they are familiar with it, they are more likely than not confusing it with Long Island, which is part of New York. Then you have to explain that you’re three hours away from New York City and actually much closer to Boston. Maybe having a professional sports team would help.
Being from Rhode Island in Rhode Island is a different story altogether, and being from Rhode Island at Brown is an even more unique status. In Rhode Island I can tell people that I’m from Cranston, or sometimes I can even say the name of my neighborhood. Local Rhode Islanders usually won’t believe that I’m from Cranston because I don’t have the typical Craaanston accent that people never tire of ridiculing. Outside of Rhode Island I will always say Providence, because chances are slim that anybody knows or cares where Cranston is. At Brown, when I say I’m from here, I may suddenly become a resource to Brunonians for all things local. Like, maybe these people are coming to Brown to study Rhode Islanders (how strange and curious they are) and I am one of the real live specimens that are rarely sighted on Brown’s campus.
In spite of being surrounded by non-Rhode Islanders, I actually feel more at home at Brown than I do when I spend time with family and friends who never leave the state. Traveling is like a drug – when you leave your hometown (or country) a whole other world opens up to you, and it’s hard to ignore it once you’ve experienced it. I feel fortunate to have traveled outside of the US extensively from a young age, and since then I have felt a constant urge to keep exploring new places and cultures. Still, it’s quite different to travel as a tourist than it is to live in a place and get to know it like a local. I prefer the latter. One of the wonderful things about being at Brown is that I can still meet people from other countries and learn so much about life outside of the US without ever leaving the city, and, being a native Rhode Islander, I feel that I have something to offer in return. It almost satisfies my wanderlust. Almost.