Interview by Edwin Jeng ’18. Photos by Victor Alvarez ’19.
Daniel Murage, a former editor at the Blog, is from Kenya. He came to Brown for the flexibility of a liberal arts college experience in the U.S., and is now concentrating in Cognitive Neuroscience after exploring a diverse range of academic fields. He has many fond memories of Brown, but is also ready to begin the next stage of his life. Read on to learn about Daniel’s experiences taking a year of leave, Americanisms he’s picked up, and his advice for an incoming international freshman.
Where are you from?
I am from Kenya.
Where in Kenya?
It’s a small town on the slopes of Mount Kenya, just a bit north of the capital city, Nairobi.
What is your concentration?
I’m studying Cognitive Neuroscience.
Is that what you wanted to do when you came to Brown?
No, no, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to do Computer Science; I had no real reason for it. Then I changed to Chemistry, then I changed to Economics, then I landed on Cognitive Neuroscience. The trend doesn’t make sense, but that’s how it happened.
What languages do you speak?
I speak Swahili, Kikuyu—Kikuyu is only spoken in Kenya, Swahili is spoken in parts of southern and eastern Africa—and English.
Which clubs have you been involved in at Brown?
Freshman year, I was part of this organization called The International Socialist Organization. It did exist! Actually, when I went on leave, that’s when it fell apart. The key players, the leaders of the group, graduated. The people who were left were not as committed. But it was a big group; it had a Rhode Island group as well. We went on trips to San Francisco for meetings.
Then I did IMP, sophomore year. [Were you a mentor?] I was a mentor, yeah.
I was also part of the track team, I spent two semesters with the Brown cycling club—lots of sports-related [activities].
Then I did the BDH. [What were you doing at the BDH?] I was a copy editor for them. The job sucks, man. Plus, I write opinion columns for them every now and then.
I worked as an editor for the IWB, and I also was, until this semester, a part of Project LETS. [I was] a peer mental health advocate.
Why did you decide to study in the U.S.?
So I had a friend in high school, and his brother studied in the U.S. He told me that his brother switched from engineering to economics. It did not make sense at all, but he told me the opportunities [his brother] had for academic freedom, and switching between anything; and you can basically do anything you want; it doesn’t dictate what you can do for the rest of your life. Yeah, that’s why I decided to apply after I graduated from high school.
What is the college system like in Kenya?
We follow the British system. It’s like, “you study engineering, man, you’ll be an engineer, there’s nothing else you can do.” You read the newspapers, and they’re like, “Oh, he did engineering, but somehow, he got into finance!” Like, “wow, how did he do that?” Anyways, yeah, I didn’t want to be caught up in that, so I applied to the U.S.
In what ways have these four years been different from what you expected?
They have been… very different. First of all, I didn’t know anyone in the U.S., anyone who went to college in the U.S. I didn’t know what to expect. I think my expectations have been dictated by people who are ahead of me, like the seniors during my freshman year: I would be like, “Oh, they went to do an MBA,” or “they went to grad school,” or “they went to work at Facebook.” Then I would be like, “Oh, I want to do an MBA, I want to work at Facebook.” That was my freshman year, but I think after meeting so many people and seeing the different kinds of things they were doing, I started having some more grounding in my own aspirations. They changed a lot.
And I think one of the most unexpected things that happened was me taking a leave. I guess when most people come to college, they expect it’s going to be smooth: four years, and then you’re done. But I had to take one year off, and that was very unexpected.
Was the year of leave a positive experience?
It was a positive experience, yeah. I went home, spent a lot of time with my family. I used to be in a boarding high school, so I got to spend a lot of time, for the first time, with my family. I got a few jobs, and also that’s when I think I figured out that I wanted to study the human mind, or the human brain.
What did you find most difficult to get used to?
The language, man. The language is difficult, even now. You know how they have the American English; I still can’t get it. I’ve written essays or proposals or whatever, and I find that if someone is editing them, if I write “colour” with a “u,” they cross it. Like, “this is not how you write “color”! Only in America, man!
Something else I haven’t gotten used to is the culture. The culture was a bit difficult to get used to, actually. The language, the accent. Something I have difficulty with even now is idioms that people use. Yesterday my professor was like, “Let me know once you’ve gotten a bite.” OK, what does that mean? The idioms that people use sort of make sense, but I don’t get them all the time. I have to always ask people to explain them.
What did you find easiest to get used to?
The easiest thing was, I think, the social life. I think people here are very friendly. At least here, they are very friendly and nice, and if you are energetic and enthusiastic to be friendly as well, you make friends very easily.
What is the food or dish that you miss from home?
We have this thing called chapati, like naan at the Indian stores. I miss that. I’m not really a food… what do they call them? [Connoisseur?] Someone who loves food, what are they called? [Food lover?] OK, I’m not really a “food lover,” so that’s the one thing I can think of that I miss. It’s actually pretty rare that I miss it. I’m pretty adaptable, in the food sense, I think. But I miss that. I miss that plus juice, man. The ones back home, you see an orange, people pick it from the tree, and bananas are fresh with no chemicals, nothing, and you can sip it, and I taste the juice, I taste the orange. It’s just fresh.
What is an Americanism you have picked up in the last four years?
I’ve picked up a lot of them. The language that I was complaining about, I’ve picked up on that. I’ve also picked up some part of the American culture that is being sort of direct. You know how you smile at people when you pass by? I do that, I smile at people. I never used to do that.
And also being direct with this sort of formal relationship with people. Being very polite, that’s what I’m trying to say. So I’ll say “thank you,” I’ll say “hi, how are you?” Before coming here, I used to do it, but it was different. Back home, when you meet someone, you’ll say, “Hi, how are you?” but it’s not going to end there. You’re going to talk for twenty minutes. You don’t smile at people, actually. I don’t know, you fistbump or whatever. Smiling was not part of the usual, I don’t know, human-to-human interaction.
How has living here changed how you act or interact at home?
For the first two weeks, yeah. For the first two weeks when I go home, it’s always sort of a culture shock, because I’m there, I’m being polite to my mom, I’m being polite to my brother. I’m telling “thank you” to my neighbors, I’m smiling at people, who’re like, “Oh, wow, what’s gotten into him?”, you know? But after two weeks, I think it automatically just ends, just fades away. Like I’ve seen people, and I’ve seen how they’re looking at me weirdly, and I go back to my former self.
But in terms of how I interact, those are obviously outward characteristics that people see. So those change very fast after going home. But I think the ideologies are the ones that persist. They change the kinds of interactions I have with people. For example, let’s say [talking about] religion, and questioning people’s thoughts and beliefs; it’s not something that people do back home. But at Brown, people are questioning everything, which I’ve sort of gotten; I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. So when I go home, I start questioning everyone about what they’re doing, and it’s a bit unsettling.
How do people react to your questioning?
The first time, people tend to dismiss you. They’re just like, “Oh, because you’ve gone to America, now you think you know everything!” Back home, there’s this sort of hierarchy, and if I were to ask, let’s say, someone who’s older than me, they would not pay attention to me. But if I ask someone younger than me or my age, I have some sort of influence on them, and I could change their mindset. So the younger people are more receptive and more willing to see different perspectives, or to question as well. But the older people, man, those ones are hard.
What do you wish you knew as an incoming freshman? What would you tell yourself?
I wish someone told me to relax. Yeah, just like chill out. Yeah, just relax, and just do your thing. I wish someone told me that. I mean, half of my Brown career was challenging, because I was always stressed, trying to get excellent grades, without even realizing that if I just, I don’t know, was myself, I could actually get those excellent grades and I could have that social life. And also, people don’t know what they’re doing, so it’s OK to not know. I don’t know what I’m doing either, and I’m in my last semester! So, just relax. And also, if you think of anything that you want to do, Brown is a good place to explore that. We have so many opportunities that are an email away. Just go to people here, or talk to someone, and there’s always someone ready and waiting to show you a way.
What is one thing that you’re going to miss about Brown?
Time with friends. Two of my best friends graduated last year. Man, I remember junior year we were living in the same dorm, and we moved our beds to the same room, so we stayed in the same room for the whole semester. I mean, it was so much fun. I could tell you more, but I don’t think this is stuff you want to put in the interview.
I’ll miss friends, I’ll miss the opportunities, I’ll miss the professors; you know, I’ve met amazing and wonderful people. I’ve met very kind people. It’s really amazing how people here are willing to help and support you in so many ways.
Ah, you know what I’ll miss? Chicken Finger Friday, man. I’ll miss Chicken Finger Friday.
What’s your strongest or favorite memory of Brown?
I think my favorite memory is of last spring, when my friends graduated, and we went on a dinner with their parents. We stayed there for like three hours and in only one of them were we eating; the other two hours we just chatted, and we had so much fun, laughing and making fun of each other, and recounting the years we had spent together. Yeah, that is definitely my favorite memory, or one of them.
Are you feeling ready to graduate?
Yeah, man, I was ready a semester ago. I don’t know what other seniors are saying, but I was ready a long time ago. I think I’ve spent enough time at Brown, and I’ve gotten the skills I need to survive in the world, in this world. I’m in the world, but I feel very much prepared to go on and do whatever I plan on doing successfully. Plus, I’m also a bit older than most people, so my mind is onto “grown-up” things.
Are you planning on staying in the States?
I’m planning on staying in the U.S. I’m actually still applying to jobs. I also got into grad school, so that’s an option that I’m considering. [Grad school, where?] At NYU. [Also studying Cog Neuro?] No, fiction, actually. MFA program. I still don’t know whether I’ll do it, but that’s something that I’d love to do. Writing is something that I’ve always given a second chance. I studied cognitive neuroscience, I was taking Literary Arts classes on the side. I’ve always put it on the side. But this is my chance to put it at the forefront.