Skip to content

Mid-year Completion Ceremony and Plumbing

December 5, 2011

Congratulations to the point-fivers who walked across the stage this past weekend. Remember, long ago, when you read your letter of acceptance? Remember walking on the Main Green for the first time as a student, under the canopy of fall leaves? Hopefully you will never lose that sense of nativity.

One of the ceremony speakers, Sam Miller, delivered this speech:

What a wonderful day this is!  Congratulations to all the celebrants.  From where I stand, I am overwhelmed by the support I see and feel.  Parents, professors, families, and friends, thank you all for being here.

If you are celebrating, it is safe to say that something unexpected happened during your time as a college students.  Whether we transferred from another school, pursued an opportunity outside of the Brown curriculum, or took some time away from our studies, this diversion from our original plan has undoubtedly played a role in our sitting here today.  I am no exception.

When I first came to campus in 2007, I was in awe of the world that I found.  The wealth of knowledge, resources and guidance made me feel as if I could do anything.  As I set about exploring different departments, I couldn’t wait to discover my path, and welcome it with passion and dedication.

But this excitement soon turned to fear halfway through my sophomore year, when I still hadn’t decided on a concentration.  My path, which had been so clear and comforting for as long as I could remember, had all but vanished.  I was going through the motions of being a college student with no sense of where I wanted to end up.  I felt           frightened.  I thought that I would be frozen in my academics, my social life, and just about everything else until I was able to make a final decision about my professional goals.

In the midst of my confusion, I decided to take some time away from Brown.  After a couple of weeks of riding an emotional roller coaster, I got a job as a plumber’s assistant in New York City.  I hoped to prove myself in a profession that placed only a minor emphasis on a college degree, let alone the institution from which it was granted.

And so began my time as a plumber’s helper.  Every morning, I would wake up before the sun and take the train into the heart of Manhattan, where I disappeared into basements and service entrances.  My first day on the job, I worked with Benny, who was a couple years away from earning his pension.  He asked if I had gone to college and I replied, very confidently, that I went to Brown.  He smiled, and told me that he had gone to Black.  I laughed with him, but inside, I panicked.  For as long as I could remember, my academic achievements had given me a leg-up, or at least garnered me a bit of respect.  Not here.

I spent a lot of time second guessing myself.  Part of me believed that I had made a huge mistake by taking a leave of absence, nevermind working as a tradesman.   I felt out of place on the train in the morning, watching all the businessmen in their power suits as I sat in my dirty jeans and scuffed workboots.  I had hoped to find a comforting change of pace as a member of the work force, but I felt even more out of my element.  A sense of powerlessness came over me; if my surroundings weren’t the problem, it was time to turn my focus inward.  I needed to change my perspective and take advantage of the opportunities that were right in front of me.  I committed myself to bringing a smile to work every morning, and to keeping myself grounded in the present, one day at a time.

Just like all new employees, I drove the supply truck for my first months on the job.  I spent the day driving from the stockroom to the different job sites scattered throughout the city.  The radio became my best friend, as it kept me company in the gridlocked traffic.  I never dared to change the station, anxious that I wouldn’t be able to switch it back to my supervisor’s favorite preset.  I learned all the Top 40 hits, quickly picking up the words and singing out loud at the top of my lungs.  The Spanish I had studied in high school started to come back, as I struggled to decipher the reggaeton lyrics.  My music theory and ethnomusicology courses came back as well, as I began to hear the chord progressions and African drumming sampled in hip-hop beats.  Perhaps I wasn’t going to completely escape the realm of my education.

In March, my boss, Mr. Teich, offered to sponsor me if I wanted to join the Local 1 Plumber’s Union.  A couple of weeks later, I was initiated as a Class “B” Plumber’s Helper.  I learned to replace boilers, run waste lines, and test sprinkler systems.  I intuitively began to apply the concepts I had learned in chemistry, choosing which compounds would respond best to temperature changes and which materials would hold up best in high pressure pipes.  I flashed back to reading Machiavelli’s The Prince, as I learned to communicate with the supers and building managers.  They didn’t want to be coddled with reassurances that jobs would be finished quickly.  They wanted realistic goals, around which they could plan future jobs and make truthful promises to their tenants.

After a couple of weeks floating around different jobs, I was introduced to Stanley.  Stanley was about 300 pounds and had played offensive line for his high school in Georgia.  He shook my hand with the strongest grip I can remember, and went right back to running his steam line.  I stood in silence, watching his every move, until I worked up enough courage to ask if I could do anything to help him.  Stanley responded with a simple question, “Do you like to work?”  A little shyly, I muttered, “Yes.”  Stanley and I were paired together almost every day from then on.

I learned a lot from Stanley.  He taught me about work ethic.  Stanley shies away from nothing and attacks each job, regardless of the difficulty, with a tenacity foreign to most people. When I asked him how he maintained such a high level of energy, his answer was not an elaborate anecdote or exaggerated life lesson.  He explained that he needed his job to support his family, and that complaining would get him nowhere.  It didn’t matter that he was consistantly given the toughest jobs, or that I was the first helper he had ever been assigned.  He worked his job because he had to.

Stanley also taught me about self-esteem.  He derives his sense of pride and importance from within himself instead of the world around him.  In this way, he is in complete control of his self-esteem, and almost entirely independent of external gratification.  Instead of viewing each hour as the 35 dollars that is his wage, he thinks of it as an opportunity to prove his mastery of the plumbing trade.  I’m sure that each of us has found our own Stanley, often times in places we least expected.

During my time as a plumber’s helper, I came to a number of important realizations.  First, a tangible representation of a day’s work is incredibly important.  There are few feelings as rewarding as finishing a job and being able to say “now that works”, or  “this is how I helped today.”  Personally, I had lost sight of this at school.  Sometimes, it’s important for me to just work with my hands, whether it’s tying in a sink, or doing the dishes.  Second, my education reaches far beyond factual knowledge.  I have learned to think in abstract and complex ways that I use every hour of every day.   Third, I do not want to be a plumber for the rest of my life.  I loved the work that I did and in it, I found enormous gratification.  I have enormous respect and admiration for those who take this path,      it is not for me.  And lastly, that perhaps the greatest gift that Brown gives to us as its students is the opportunity to pursue any profession that we might desire.  With a Brown degree, we can go on to be successful plumbers, and we can also pursue business, or medicine, or anything else that we might choose.

I returned to Brown in 2009 with an entirely renewed motivation.  Providence was no longer the next stop on my educational path, but rather the site where I would discover opportunities, make and give myself choices, and open doors that I never knew existed.  I declared Psychology as my concentration, not because I was commited to a particular career, but because I simply enjoyed the classes.  I went to office hours and review sessions, joined research labs, and took on more responsibility in extracurricular activities because I loved the feeling of grasping material, learning new ideas, and being involved.  I worked to build relationships with my professors, asking them for any guidance that they might give to a student unsure of his ultimate goals.  I did my best to listen, and absorb all I could from the people around me.

Here at Brown, we have been taught not only theories and formulas, but also confidence, perseverance and acceptance. We can hold our own in boardrooms with CEO’s, and we can contribute on job sites with strong and skillful blue-collar professionals.  We have learned that we can be successful in any environment and to be comfortable in our own skin.  Brown prepares us to enter the working world, return to our families, and go out into our communities and be sources of knowledge, of service and of strength.

Over the last couple years, I have been asked many times “when are you going to finish at Brown?”  What follows is usually a scattered story of transfer credits, semester standing and something about the Winter of 2011.  A seemingly simple question gets an awkward and complicated answer.  But to be honest, I’m a little awkward and complicated myself, and my time at Brown has definitely had its share of awkwardness and complication.  I have also found that the conversation that follows is usually interesting and personal.  In my willingness to discuss an instance where my original plans were not realized, others seem to find this same willingness, and I hear stories that I might not have heard otherwise.

So, when you get asked what class you were in at Brown, say that .5 proudly.  We are members of the class of 2011.5 and our time at Brown may not have gone exactly as we had planned, but we’ve embraced that and we can be proud of it.  We have learned a great deal inside these classrooms, and we have learned outside of them as well.  We have buried our heads in textbooks and journals, we have made peace with ourselves and the unknown, and we have laughed as our plans were altered for bigger and better things.  This amazing education and these incredible skills will stay with us for as long as we live; a lesson I have had the pleasure of learning from my parents, both of whom are Brown .5’ers as well.

Brown has inspired me to learn here on campus, and has also pushed me to take chances and pursue opportunities outside of its walls, and for that, I will be forever grateful.

Thank you all and congratulations again to everyone.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: