By Amanda Brown ’15
I had a realization about Colgate halfway through my senior year. It happened the way that most great Colgate realizations do: with an alumnus whom I hadn’t seen in a while, over lunch at a diner in New Jersey. We were talking about a mutual friend we both admired, and I said, “She’s so Colgate!” When he interrupted me to ask what “So Colgate” meant, I realized I didn’t really know either — so, we unpacked it for a while.
“So Colgate.” I had said it countless times before, about different things. This particular instance was about someone in the Class of 2015 who embodies many characteristics I associate with our school. She’s driven, she’s compassionate, she’s involved all over campus. That to me describes most of our schoolmates; but she doesn’t necessarily represent most of our students. She’s a deacon from Alaska who majors in geography. She’s not “typical” by any means: most Colgate students haven’t walked in her footsteps. So what did I mean?
When I started thinking about other seniors who I’d say are “Colgate” people, one after another came to mind until I realized something. All of these classmates, each of whom I felt embody Colgate, are Colgate, were completely unlike anyone else. They’re all different from everyone around them, and the identity we see on their surface says nothing to their full individual reality. It is that uniqueness, those hidden complexities, those unexpected trailblazing biographies: that is what screams “Colgate” to me.
When I think about our “typical” Colgate classmate, it only highlights how atypical they all are when you get to know them. I think of the senior who majored in philosophy, but is also passionate about food justice, so in his free time, he plans how to end the food desert in Atlanta’s West End. I think of the senior from Darien, Conn., who commits herself to addressing privilege and pushes us all to do the same. I think of the senior Division 1 athlete who overcame eight concussions to get a neuroscience degree and then took it to Wall Street. I think of the senior who spent half her Colgate career advocating for sex positivity, breaking down our barriers, and facilitating safe discussions on sexuality. I think of the student who studied abroad in his senior spring semester, spends Friday nights challenging himself to share his poetry aloud with strangers, and whose mother flew here from Kenya for our graduation.
I think of all of our classmates whose parents went to Colgate, went to a rival school, never went to college, have never been to the United States before. I think of the fact that if a stranger drew an image of a stereotypical Colgate student — with whatever identities, passions, backgrounds, and goals that they think are our “norm” — that image would not accurately describe the realities of our class. I can say that with sincerity, certainty, and pride.
But when I was a first-year, I couldn’t have said that. As many students do, it took me a while to get into stride in college, and to truly understand the enigma that is Colgate. I knew it was cold (it only took me a few weeks to figure that out). I knew there were a lot of friendly, smart classmates around — but before I really started to engage with them, most of them seemed pretty similar. I knew what sport that girl on my floor played, and what country my classmate was from. In my attempt to sift through this sea of strangers, many in a uniform of Bean Boots, I classified people by the first thing or two I learned about them. It made for an empty year, particularly in hindsight, now that I’ve lived a much fuller Colgate experience.
My favorite writer, Chimamanda Adichie, warns of the exact trap I fell into as a first-year: the danger of a single story. She argues that when we know one thing about a person, place, or thing, we often presume we know them accurately and entirely. But, she said, “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” I have found that paradise at Colgate.
Ironically, when I think about the most “typical” thing I ever saw at Colgate, the most representative of what I love about Colgate, the most Colgate experience of my last four years, I actually think about last fall’s student-led sit-in. The week itself was not normal, expected, or characteristic of the rest of our four years here. But it finally highlighted the multiplicity that exists at Colgate, and celebrated it. I think about how those hours of personal narratives revealed that in this story of protest were infinite individual chapters. I think about the professors walking their students down to admission to hold class there in solidarity. I think about the campus-wide acknowledgment that there is no Colgate experience, only Colgate experiences; no Colgate identity, only Colgate identities; no Colgate story, only many, many different Colgate stories. And that pluralism, which our class embodies, is not something to be taken for granted. Our community is about more than being unique or having multiple layers: it’s about challenging ourselves and our peers to see that in others, and to then act on it.
Back in the Jersey diner off Route 46, I realized that this alumnus was quite Colgate himself, as was our friendship. He had studied theater and English; I studied war and religion. Our clubs, affiliations, and campus experiences never overlapped once. We never even met until his senior week in Myrtle Beach. Yet we could sit down over chocolate-chip pancakes, and talk for hours about Colgate, the people we met here, and what we learned and unlearned here.
And that is why “so Colgate” is a beautiful characterization in my mind — it’s something all-encompassing and ever-changing. It means something different to everyone in our class.
So, I conclude with a call to action. We’ll always be bound together in this messy maroon manuscript called Colgate. As you keep writing your own chapter, keep reading others’. Quote them, debate them, appreciate them. Find that your own story is not the summary on the back cover — nobody’s is. In that recognition, we discover what makes all of this truly Colgate.
— Brown gave this speech at the 2015 senior class brunch. She founded and is executive director of the USA branch of Children and Youth First, which works with the organization’s Nepal branch to fund and operate the Life Vision Academy boarding school. Colgate held a Hackathon during which alumni and students helped Brown enhance the web presence of her venture: