In this edition of International Humans of Brown, Agnes from Hong Kong and Marjorie from Singapore, sat down with Lily Zhao ‘18 to share their experiences at Brown, thoughts on adjustments to American culture, and more. Read on to find out more about these two close friends as they discuss what they wish they knew as incoming freshmen, what Americanisms they picked up, and their favorite memories over the last 4 years!
Why did you decide to study in the US?
Marjorie: I think for me I was deciding between the UK and the US but ultimately I chose the US because mean it was really for the liberal arts education. I wanted to try a variety of things. I think being at Brown is really good because there is no core and you can do anything you’re interested in. For example, this semester we’re doing a contemporary architecture class. I could do Spanish. I could just do a variety of classes, and that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to just focus on my concentration Economics and Public Policy.
Agnes: Yeah, for me it’s definitely also the academic freedom. I was also choosing between the US and the UK. If I had gone to the UK I would have studied History because that’s what I applied for, and there wouldn’t have been much flexibility with that. I came into Brown thinking that I wanted to do History too, but I’m glad that I had the flexibility at Brown to change my concentration throughout the first two years, and I ended up choosing IR which is quite different from History.
How have your four years here been different from what you have expected?
Agnes: I think for me coming into Brown I also never thought I would spend a year abroad. I think usually when people say study abroad I would think like I would’ve wanted to go somewhere for like a semester. But I became really interested in the Oxford program, and that program had to be done for one year. I think the other thing that is beyond my expectation…I think I felt that, I always thought of the open curriculum as you really would be very free to take a lot of different kind of subjects, but because of the major that I chose, which is IR, I had a lot of requirements that were quite rigid, so I don’t feel like I’ve been able to take as many fun and interesting classes as I thought I would be able to.
Marjorie: I guess I never expected to do like a different language or to do a study abroad for one whole year. Taking Spanish, I was just shopping classes and I just shopped it and really liked it so I decided to take it. I didn’t expect to go abroad for one whole year junior year. I just expected to do one semester abroad but I ended up doing the DC program. I guess just being exposed to so many different things. I also didn’t expect to do a thesis this year, which has been really time consuming, but I also think has been really fulfilling. I feel like the professors have been so open and willing to help. Which I am really thankful for. My main advisor is so helpful. She’s very willing to spend time helping me with my project.
What’s your research topic?
Marjorie: I’m doing it on homelessness. I’m focusing on the education of children experiencing homelessness. I’m studying this federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. It’s basically meant to give assistance to children experiencing homelessness, so I’m studying whether it’s actually effective on the local level. I’m interviewing parents who are experiencing homelessness as well as different stakeholders in Rhode Island.
What have you found so far?
Marjorie: I actually found that the main problem of the federal law is the severe underidentification of homeless children and youth. There is also an underfunding of this federal law, so there’s often not enough resources for school districts to invest in identifying and supporting homeless students.
What did you find to be the most easiest and the most difficult to get used to?
Agnes: For me the easiest part was meeting new friends in freshman year. From the beginning we had IMP which made it really easy to meet new international kids from the outset. Actually most of my friends whom I’m still close friends with today I met through IMP, and I’ve been friends with them since freshman year, so IMP really made it easy for me to meet other international students.
I think the hardest part for me maybe is like…I think initially transitioning into a life where I have to manage everything by myself, including like, I mean we were on meal plan in the beginning but later on, cooking for myself. Also not being really used to meal plan food. I think that was it, just adjusting to a life where you have to be totally independent. I think the other thing maybe is just the intense weather here was really hard for me to adjust to.
Marjorie: I think actually going back to the question of what did you not expect, I think I didn’t expect it to be actually quite rigorous, like the academics are pretty intense. For example like languages, there is homework everyday. I think coming from Singapore people are like, oh the Singaporean education is the most intense and U.S. is like really chill, you have a lot of fun, you party a lot, but I really found that that is not true at all. You actually have to put in a lot of work. Maybe that was also a challenge at the start, doing a new language, that was pretty challenging for me. I guess just like fitting in, learning about American culture, and the food options on meal plan are just so different from what I eat at home. The easy part…I don’t know what’s the easy part.
What food/dish do you miss from home?
Marjorie: Oh my god everything.
Agnes: I really miss everything. I miss everything but at the same time I think there are a lot of food options in Providence that are really great. We love exploring new restaurants in Providence, and even like it’s easy to go to Boston to find good food. I think I miss home food but I’m like okay with the food here too.
What is an Americanism you have picked up in the past four years?
Marjorie: I think it’s asking people “how are you”, in Singapore I never ask “how are you”. But now I always do that.
Agnes: And I always used to very confused when people ask me, or like I don’t know how to respond when people ask me. Or like do I say it back? But I think now when I am in Hong Kong I will do that. Like “hey how are you” instead of just saying “hi”.
Marjorie: Over the phone, I feel like even for service staff if I’m making a restaurant reservation, sometimes people are like “oh hi, how are you?” And at first I found that really weird, but now I do that sometimes.
Agnes: I think I also say stuff like “y’all”, just like little things. I think “I’m down” definitely, I never used to say that.
Marjorie: “For sure”
What do you wish you knew as an incoming freshman?
Marjorie: Oh my gosh, I need to think about this. I guess that like academics really aren’t everything. There so much more to explore out of classes. Like to attend more talks and stuff, I think that’s a perfect university resources, because I think freshman year I really didn’t make use of whatever is happening campus. I would just like go to class, meet some friends, but I feel like actually on campus there are so many resources open to you. So many good speakers come to Brown, and I can really learn so much more from the events and talks and I wish I took advantage of that more freshman year.
Agnes: I think two things: the first one like Marjorie was saying, academics really aren’t everything. I think that definitely applies. Like even now that I’m like, or this past year that I’ve been trying to find jobs after graduation I realized that it kind of is equally important to have good grades as it is to know how to talk to people and to be sociable and know how to network. I think those are equally important skills, especially if you are trying to find a job in the U.S. I think the other thing maybe is that it’s good to come into Brown with not a fixed idea of how you want your academic career to develop, so I think when you come to Brown, you’ll slowly figure it out, rather than coming in thinking I’m going to study this, this, this, and this is how I want to achieve it. I think coming in with an open mind and being flexible with what kind of classes you take and being open to exploring different subjects.
What do you think is the best class you took at Brown?
Agnes: I took a class in sophomore year called History of American Intervention, which is an IR class I believe, and that was with Stephen Kinzer, and I thought the content of the class was really interesting. Basically every lecture he just tells a story about like America intervening in another country’s politics. That’s not something I’ve ever learnt before and I think that really changed my perspective of how the U.S. behaves in global affairs. The other one is Arnold Weinstein’s Rites of Passage, which I took as a freshman seminar. He’s a comp lit professor and is just a really, really great professor and if you come to Brown you should definitely take a class with him.
What is one thing you are going to miss about Brown? Best memory?
Agnes: I think the first thing I’m going to miss that I know I’m not going to have the chance to do in the future is just taking classes just because I want to and because I enjoy it. This semester I’m taking contemporary architecture and Shakespeare, and I’m taking these classes just because I want to and I know that I won’t have the chance to academically study these things in the future. So being able to learn things just for the sake of learning it. I think when you move on into a career a lot of it is about like you’re learning something to develop your career but not because you really just want to gain this knowledge. The other thing is just like being able to live independently with a group of friends, I think it’s hard to have that experience, especially after I move back to Hong Kong where housing prices are crazy expensive and people don’t usually move out until after they are married. So being able to just live in this space and do everything by myself, manage all my stuff by myself, and also occasionally have people over to have some wine or play a board game. I don’t think I will be able to have this experience again.
Marjorie: Miss the people more than anything, the classes, and just the whole environment. I’m going to miss brown so much when I graduate! Hard to pick one because there are so many small things that I deeply treasure and fondly remember. Some of my best memories are going to Toronto in sophomore year with a bunch of friends to celebrate thanksgiving, and late night talks and cooking illegally in my room in sophomore year with my roommate! Also, having friends over regularly in senior year, and chilling over wine and board games.
What is your favorite Blue Room pastry?
Agnes: I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a Blue Room muffin, but my favorite Blue Room baked good is the pecan roll. I think I eat one once a week. It’s really, really good. I love the peanut butter cookie at the Blue Room. So the pecan roll and the peanut butter cookie. Highly recommend.
Marjorie: Pecan roll.
Advice for younger students? Younger self?
Agnes: I think that it’s a really valuable experience to study abroad in your junior year. Regardless of whether you go for a semester or a year, I think that through being in another country that has an unfamiliar culture you can learn a lot about yourself and a lot about that country, and even better if it relates to your concentration. I decided to go to Oxford for a year but if I had to choose again I might have chosen another country that would offer more cultural immersion rather than just an academic experience. The UK is a bit similar to the US, so it’s not really outside of my comfort zone. I would have liked to have that experience of being in a totally unfamiliar place.
Marjorie: Attend as many events as you can, take different classes, learn a new language, and always remember to make time to spend time with friends because most of my best memories are times spent with friends!