September 12, 2019 | Feature
the inside scoop
flavors of the new student ice cream social
The final breaths of summer exhale through the still-unfinished construction sites and buildings of Brown University’s campus, a campus that, until 12 hours ago, held the quiet of an empty home—save the nightly Thayer Street bustle. Now, just past 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, it hums with pop music and chatter. Undergraduate orientation has arrived, and with it, the New Student Ice Cream Social.
Enticed by the promise of free ice cream despite being well beyond my first year, I walk to it with some friends who have come back to Providence early. We meander down Thayer Street from our off-campus apartments, then cut through Ruth Simmons Quad. Groups of staff and students clean up from the Parents and Families Welcome Reception under a white tent in the middle of the green, rolling out tables and folding chairs. We smile and talk about our upcoming classes, our goals for the new semester, how we plan to spend our last year at Brown. Still, senior year seems intangible, impossibly distant. How could we be so close to the end of university when it feels as if we’ve only just arrived?
Three years ago, my family flew with me to Providence to move me into my first-year dorm. We carried suitcases up flights of stairs, attended tours and welcome events, and raided Bed Bath & Beyond for shower flip-flops and pillows. Finally, we celebrated my budding higher education career and move—thousands of miles away from my hometown in Minnesota—with a goodbye dinner at Los Andes. After that, I was left startlingly alone, listening to my new unit neighbors in the hall and looking over the orientation schedule. Only one event was left that Saturday: the New Student Ice Cream Social at 10:00 p.m.
The premise is simple: Incoming students flood the Main Green for free dessert. The orientation pamphlet for 2019 promotes the event—“Get ready to unwind and celebrate your first night at Brown with your fellow classmates under the stars on the College Green! Cool down from the summery weather and grab some free ice cream, then grab a spot on the College Green!” It’s an opportunity to meet peers and attempt to form friendships through the shared love of chocolate ice cream. You collect phone numbers. You ask and answer, “What do you plan on concentrating in?” over 20 times. You wonder if the rest of university will be as overwhelming and exciting as this.
This year’s social is remarkably similar to the one my first year. Pretty strings of lights hang throughout the Main Green, creating a false sense of daylight despite the late hour. A sound system adorns the steps of Faunce, blaring pop music. The Orientation Welcoming Committee staff stands with matching shirts at several sprawling tables covered in large bins of ice cream, distributing scoops into paper bowls and refilling the syrup containers that are constantly running out. Two massive loose lines of students run from the tables all the way to the gates on George Street. Ice cream in hand, they form little conversation clumps in front of the steps and anywhere else there’s free space. A few energetic first-years run throughout the Green, spreading the word about some dorm party, trying to meet as many people as possible. There is laughter and loud voices and the feeling of pure optimism. These are students with their whole academic lives ahead of them and the community of Brown awaiting.
My friends take a place in line and promise me a scoop of mint chocolate chip. I take to moseying through the crowds, meeting new faces and hearing perspectives that remind me why I decided to study at Brown for three (going on four) years. I talk with Juliana Lederman, an incoming first-year from north of Boston, whose favorite flavor of ice cream is Oreo, a trend, much to my surprise, I’ll notice as the evening progresses. Apparently everyone just loves cookies and cream. On being asked what she’s most excited about, she answers, “I’m excited about the people. Everyone here seems really nice so far, and I’m just excited to meet as many new friends as possible.” She smiles and tells me that she’s already met a few incredible individuals, including her roommate from Switzerland who “can speak in both an American and a British accent, which is really cool.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Another first-year I meet is Emma McFall from South Carolina. We wait in line together for a bit. She’s excited to be back to where her mother grew up—Rhode Island. She shares Juliana’s outlook on the student body, telling me, “Everyone I’ve met is just really nice and different . . . They’re all from fairly different places. I’ve met more people from different countries than ever before in my life in one day, and they all have hobbies that are so unique.” I share a similar experience: my first-year roommate was from Malaysia, my friend from Principles of Physiology was from France, and my calculus TA was from China, just to name a few examples. During my time here, I have met maybe two people within 200 miles of where I’m from. According to the Brown University website, the undergraduate student body represents 47 states and 63 nations, speaking 69 languages in total.
A few minutes later I meet an incoming student from Denmark. Adrian Flarup-Johansen is a new member of the crew team at Brown. He’s eager to start rowing and taking classes, particularly in Economics, his intended concentration. Midway through our conversation, some friends, or at least friendly strangers, come up and chat with us about a get-together one of the sports houses is throwing. He begins to give directions, but not before leaving me with a succinct answer to his opinion on the Ice Cream Social: “It’s a lot of fun. Meeting a lot of new people.”
On my way back to my friends, I run into Leonardo Brito, an incoming PLME student from Miami, Florida. He plans to concentrate in Neuroscience and play club rugby, although he’s never played the sport before. When I ask what his favorite ice cream flavor is, he pauses for a moment, then says, “That’s tough. It’s mostly caramel—to me it’s Dulce de Leche because I’m from Miami. Sometimes it’s coconut, too.” Even though we’re about to eat ice cream, he’s grateful for Providence’s cooler weather compared to the muggy climate of Miami. I ask, almost automatically at this point, what he’s excited for this coming semester. He responds, “I think working with other people and getting a lot of different perspectives. Just because I feel like even though I live in Miami, and it’s very diverse, it doesn’t offer me the type of experience that I would get at a place like Brown, where all these different people are coming from all over the world, and they’re here to collaborate.”
Theresa Wagner is part of the first-year cohort of Bonner Fellows, a four-year community engagement fellowship of the Swearer Center, and has been on campus for more than a week already for its pre-orientation program. As I’ve been helping to run said program, we’ve met before, and I’m eager to catch up. She is from Pawtucket, not from Brown. I ask what she’s most excited for, and she replies, “I’m very excited to take classes in subjects that I’ve never even thought of before.” This is a bit different than the answer I’ve been hearing about Brown’s diverse student body, but it holds the same spirit that all these new students seem to share. They’re thrilled to learn about people, subjects, and perspectives they’ve never had the opportunity to engage with.
It’s easy to disregard such intense positivity as naivety, or with a passing just-wait-until-your-first-midterm thought. Yes, they’re wide-eyed, but it’s really just so they can take in all these new experiences. That isn’t to say that studying at Brown has not made me jaded, but I’ve had time to get used to the phenomenon that is Brown education. The open curriculum has passed into the periphery, replaced with concentration and premedical requirements. The overwhelmingly interesting members of our student body have settled into their different departments and student groups, only intersecting now and then. The people I was once so in awe of have become my peers.
I ask Theresa what she thinks of the people she’s met. She beams and explains, “Very friendly. Everyone is so nice, and it’s really easy to talk to people. And I wasn’t sure it was going to be like that, so I am very pleasantly surprised.” I tell her how glad that makes me and realize I’d been holding my breath for an unhappier answer.
All those years back, I walked down Brown Street to the Ice Cream Social alone. I wasn’t sure where the people in my unit had gone, and my roommate didn’t want to go. I was also nervous, excessively so. This was a chance to make friends, to put myself out there and discover the idyllic college life, complete with a close friend group to go on adventures with. It was a list of tasks—a networking event, more than anything else. I managed to find the correct line for ice cream after mistakenly waiting in one for toppings for several minutes and then standing around in a group of students I had thought composed the ice cream line. Once I had my ice cream, I wasn’t sure what to do. I stood awkwardly to the side, hoping someone would come up to me and introduce themselves. After a bit I decided to try butting into some conversations, which only ended in forced smiles and a few moments of excruciating silence after I tried (unsuccessfully) to seem as funny, smart, and aloof as I could while I introduced myself. I did manage to talk for a while with some students and get some phone numbers, but after about 30 minutes of struggling with small talk, I hurried back to my dorm.
For a long time, I considered my go at the Ice Cream Social a failure. I was barely there, and the people I met ended up as vaguely familiar faces rather than lifelong friends. Part of the reason I returned my senior year was to right that wrong, to experience the ice cream social I had wanted all those years ago. Now, however, I’m faced with an ending rather than a beginning. This will, assuming all goes well, be my final year as an undergraduate. I will graduate in the spring and move on to other parts of life that don’t revolve around the Main Green. As I chat with the members of the Class of 2023, I’m struck with how little this night has affected the rest of my academic career. I still made lifelong friends. I still found interesting extracurriculars. I still learned so much from all the wonderful students I met and all the classes I took.
Nevertheless, I know I missed out. I’m surprised by how easy it is to introduce myself to these first-years when I don’t put the weight of my social success at Brown on the interaction, when I don’t focus on making myself seem cool and interesting, and when the people surrounding me are just students, sharing and supporting one another’s half-formed plans and passions.
I finally make my way back to my friends, who have saved my ice cream scoop for me as promised. I wonder how much faster I would have found them if I’d just taken the event a little less seriously. Yes, this is everyone’s first big social event at Brown, but it won’t be their last. I wish I could tell my younger self to soak it all in, to listen to a couple stories from interesting peers and enjoy the silly tradition without thinking too hard.
I take a bite and think of Theresa’s opinion on the Ice Cream Social, which captures the event better than I can: “It’s much bigger than I expected, and the music is very nice, and I love ice cream, so it’s all very exciting.” I relish in the sweetness of it all, and hope all the students around me do the same.