Part of Something Larger I

This feature/profile was written as my final assignment for my advanced journalism course with David Rohde.

photo credit: Tim Natividad

BROWN UNIVERSITY’S OPEN curriculum has a reputation for attracting students who achieve through independence, but for some, structure is necessary to succeed. Being part of something “larger than myself” was important for David Salsone, a Brown undergrad who arrived as a 25 year-old freshman in the fall of 2009.

Salsone had spent the previous six years of his life serving the United States Navy, so lack of structure and regimen was a concept almost entirely foreign to the Resumed Undergraduate Education (RUE) student from Oceanside, New York. During orientation, he and nearly 1,500 other first-year students rounded the indoor track in the Olney Margolis Athletic Center at the student activities fair, in search of extracurriculars to occupy their time outside the classroom.

As a man of the sea, Salsone knew he wanted to return to the water. He approached a pair of adjacent tables—the sailing and rowing teams. He asked if either raced against the Naval Academy, which each confirmed they did. “Then I asked them which one was harder,” he said. “The crew team was silent. Then I looked over to the sailing team and they were just looking at the crew team. Everyone knew. I said, ‘I’m with you guys.’”

The next day he came down to the Brown boathouse to learn how to row.

“I just remember us all sitting on the [rowing machines] in a row, and it just reminded me of being back in rank formation when I was in boot camp” he recalled. “It was new and everyone was pretty much looking to the guy next to them and wondering, what the hell is about to happen?”

What happened? For the next nine months, Salsone fought for his ability to row. As a RUE student, he was technically in his fifth year of eligibility, therefore denying him the right to compete as an NCAA athlete. But Salsone had never played a sport in his life.

Despite the uncertainty about his opportunity to race with the team, he came to practice every day from September to May.

“It was probably the best point of transition for me,” said Salsone. “To see that you have committed individuals who are civilians, who know the feeling of pulling for the guy next to you, quite literally, wanting an entire team to succeed, knowing you’re one small part of something larger.”

But by mid-April, Salsone’s fate was sealed. The former Navy Officer would never be able to represent Brown in uniform. After a year of setbacks, being a member of the team proved an invaluable experience, but fruitless going forward.

“Once I realized I couldn’t be a part of the team was probably the hardest year for me at Brown,” he said of his sophomore year. “It was the first time in eight years I wasn’t part of a group at all. It was very isolating, and I realized in order to combat this, or at least feel more involved, I had to put my free time to better use. That’s where stepping into the veteran and RUE community happened for me.”

Rowing had been an integral entrance point for Salsone, but his circumstances would not allow him to sit quietly on the sidelines for the remainder of his undergraduate career. Over the next two years, he chose to make a difference for students who found themselves in his shoes.

WHEN SALSONE GRADUATED from Oceanside High School in 2002, college was not an option. The only way to achieve that dream would be to enter the military in order to receive funding. For the next six years, he specialized in satellite communications as a Second Class Petty Officer and electronics technician for the U.S. Navy, stationed in Bahrain.

In 2009 he came to Providence, a first generation college student, and the first of his siblings to matriculate. College, for him, was not a rite of passage. It was a rare opportunity.

During his second and third years, Salsone became president of both the RUE association and the Student Veterans Society. In the spring of 2012, he received an Alfred Joslin Award, given annually to a small number of seniors who “have not only enhanced their own liberal education, they have also provided services, programs and other opportunities for involvement to their peers.”

Also in the spring, Salsone became an active member of a student group called Brown for Financial Aid (BFA) in hopes of pushing Brown to make its admissions for RUE, international and transfer students completely need-blind.

“I see the real results of getting to a school like this, and if I can help break down a barrier, I feel it’s more a responsibility than a passion,” he said. “I like giving back, knowing that I left something better. That’s what drives me. Some people try to double concentrate or work on a thesis, I really try to get involved in the system.”

For Salsone, being part of something larger meant not simply appreciating the opportunities afforded, but also creating better circumstances for his peers.

His efforts over the past two years led to Brown’s resumed discussion of the ROTC program, and helped organize the largest Veteran’s Day celebration on campus in 20 years. He constructed a wall commemorating Brown’s military history since 1764 and brought veterans and widowed spouses to speak on campus. As president of the RUE association, he transformed the community from a tangentially related group of students into a vital resource.

He even managed to help his former teammates by volunteering as a Teaching Assistant each semester. He insisted that his discussion sections for Barrett Hazeltine’s business management courses be open specifically for members of the crew team. “My goal is help them as much as the [they] helped me,” he said. “Without crew, my experience at Brown would have been vastly different and not at all as rewarding.”

He made time for all this, while putting himself on track to graduate a semester ahead of schedule, with the class of ’12.5. If not for BFA, however, Salsone’s impact on the future of RUE students and veterans might not have reached the potential he sees now.

BFA BEGAN WITH a small group of seniors who shared a passion for an issue. The idea hatched slowly, but by April of their final semester at Brown, their cause had taken root.

Amit Jain, Tim Natividad and Anish Sarma were three of these students who often found themselves at the Graduate Center Bar together. Each week they shared a table and the conversation often moved towards diversity at Brown and the issue of financial aid.

“I remember the moment it shifted,” said Sarma. “One day we just were at the GCB talking about financial aid, and we started talking to people around us, instead of just talking to each other. That’s when I realized that if we made this a student group, and brought more people in and tried to project all of the student energy that it might be something big.”

The student group received University certification at the beginning of the spring semester—the last possible chance to approve new student organizations—just two months later they had launched the website along with a petition calling for the University to become completely need blind. Jain and Natividad had discovered through their work at the Third World Center that one sixth of students at Brown were admitted on a need aware basis; these 1,000 students are from the international, transfer and RUE communities. As an active member of the Janus Forum, a student branch of the Political Theory Project at Brown that sparks campus discussion, Sarma had organized a debate on financial aid the previous year.

By the beginning of May, more than 1,500 students had signed their petition. One-fourth of the Brown student body. They had created an informational video, advertising that Brown’s average student loan debt, at over $21,000, far exceeded that of its peers like Harvard, at $10,000, and Princeton, $5,000.

Dartmouth, whose endowment is more comparable to Brown’s, pushed to become completely need blind in 2008, due to prodding from student groups. Jain contacted the student leader from Dartmouth, who told them to be unafraid “to make waves.” As part of their campaign, members of the Brown group spent time carrying posters and canvassing the issue around campus, petition in hand. Suddenly, financial aid became a hot button topic at Brown and beyond. Even the New York Times, “The Choice” blog requested interviews with the group’s founders.

Their goal is 2,000 signatures before the May Corporation meeting, three big names in particular: President Simmons, Provost Schlissel and President elect Paxson. The Brown Corporation is aware that need blind financial aid is a priority, but BFA wants to emphasize how important it is to the student body and that it should be at the top of the list.

“ONE THING I’VE always noticed is that Brown isn’t as class diverse as it is racially diverse,” said Natividad. The way that he and his classmates thought it would be best to address the issue was to improve financial aid.

He and Jain lived down the hall from one another freshman year, participated actively in the Third World Center their junior year and now share a house on Transit Street. During junior year, “We got a better appreciation for class issues inherent at Brown, class diversity and how we can improve it,” said Jain. “We want to have a thriving community with students with all kinds of experiences.”

Like Salsone, these two had incredibly active undergraduate careers. Natividad, who will join Google next fall, is an avid music blogger and spoken word poet. Jain dances in Brown’s South Asian dance fusion team, Badmaash, and will be following his political aspirations when he joins the Obama campaign in Florida this summer.

BFA is a diverse group—each member focused on leaving Brown a better place than when he or she arrived as a freshman. Senior Zoe Stephenson is another core member who exemplifies that sentiment.

“I am at Brown and not on financial aid,” she said. “My family is wealthy and I don’t think that should have anything to do with whether or not I’m here, because I don’t think that is how I contribute to the Brown community.”

The future chemical engineer has taken a number of stances while at Brown, many of which have fallen under the term “women’s issues,” which she insists is an inappropriate name since the issues are “bad for everybody.”

“When there’s something that I care about,” Stephenson said. “It’s hard for me not to advocate that.”

THURSDAY EVENINGS IN J. Walter Wilson room 202 bring BFA’s members together—students from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Besides pushing for more signatures and support from school administrators, one of the group’s primary goals for this year and next is to gain younger members.

Freshman Alex Mechanick will take over as acting president next year. “We’re a bit top heavy,” he said with a touch of sarcasm, regarding the fact that many of the founding members are graduating this spring. “We will be forced to shift that.”

Coming from a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, “I had a very good idea about how means could hold back [some] people,” he said. “On a visceral level, I cared about it.” After coming to the first meeting of the semester, Mechanick came back each week.

As did junior Athony White, who will be a key ally to the group next year. In late April, White was elected to be next year’s president of the Undergraduate Council of Students (UCS). The final weeks of his year are chock-full of dinners and meetings with President Ruth Simmons, Provost Mark Schlissel and President elect Christina Paxson.

“Something tells me Anthony will definitely be able to get on the agenda,” remarked Mechanick at the end of last Thursday’s meeting.

ONE OF PRESIDENT Simmons’ lasting impressions on the school will have been making Brown need blind for domestic students in 2003. She will leave that legacy and large shoes for the President elect to fill. But according to White, Paxson was even more enthusiastic when he delivered BFA’s report at their dinner together. “She was literally jumping off the walls with excitement,” he said.

The group’s success has stemmed from two things. Students have been very receptive of the petition—financial aid has been the most pressing issue for students according to Brown Daily Herald polls of the past two years. More importantly, BFA believes it has presented a reasonable time frame for the changes they are proposing. It is a ten-year plan. Realistically, it won’t affect any students currently enrolled at the University.

While Salsone concedes that stereotypically most students want change now, the petition’s success speaks towards the group’s mission of making Brown a better place for future classes, filled with the most qualified and diverse students possible. Natividad agreed.

“Brown has really cared for me, has taught me, has made me a better person,” he said. “When I think about my ambitions and things I want to do later on in my life, those things are colored by my experience at Brown, and for the better. I can only hope that increasing financial aid means catalyzing the same chain of effects for many other students who could go through the very same process I’ve gone through. Pay it forward.”

For students like Natividad and Salsone, the possibility of the future trumps immediate tangible success. Salsone could have taken a job straight out of the military, which would have paid five times the amount that he received as a Naval officer—untaxed—and helped him provide for his mother and two sisters. “I know where the top of a contractor’s job is,” he said. “But I don’t know how far I could go if I pursue my education.”

As a result, he has both given and received.

During her final State of Brown address, President Simmons spoke about students who were the economic lifeboat for their families. “I have never felt so close to a university representative than to the president of Brown, when she said that,” he said. “You realize that that kind of experience made it that far up the chain.”

ON SALSONE’S LAST day of practice with the crew team freshman year, his coach, Joe Donahue, said to the rest of the squad, “He may not be a rower, but Dave is always going to be Brown Crew.”

Leaving a team, or leaving a University, does not remove an individual from the experience or take away an identity. The people who give back to organizations and institutions are the ones who change them. Immediate progress is not always possible, but without patience, no advancement will happen.

When Salsone returned to Brown sophomore year, Coach Donahue gave him the nametag that had hung above his locker the year before. It is still taped to Salsone’s bedroom door.

“As much as I want be on the team, I can still be part of it,” he recalled thinking. As for Brown, there is no doubt.

“This school is going to change the life of my entire family.”

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