The Question: What does “liberal” really mean re: Brown?


Welcome to The Question, where you’ll get answers about life at Brown all year long! I’m Celina Stewart, and I’ll be bringing you insights (and photos!) into my fourth year at Brown and my answers to some of the questions I wish I’d asked before college. 

When I found out I got into Brown, I was waiting for a movie at my local theater in Franklin, Tennessee. My friends were shouting and a woman asked what we were so excited about. My friend exclaimed, “Celina got into Brown!” and the women replied, “Liberals!” before walking away. Her husband sheepishly told me later in the concession line that she felt bad for her ‘rude’ response. I’ve joked about this incident many times because, to be honest, she was the only person in Tennessee who recognized what (or where) Brown even was outside of my parents (and my excited friend’s Mom).

As part of the Ask a Brown Student process, I’ve answered a ton of emails from prospective students. You all usually are worried about your future, excited to try new things, and feeling a whole variety of completely normal emotions in between. One question I keep getting asked by students (especially those of you who visited for ADOCH this past week or couldn’t visit but hoped to get insights) is what people mean when they call Brown “liberal”. Does it mean that everyone on campus is voting for Bernie Sanders? Do we have wild lifestyles? Is political activism a key part of your experience at Brown? The short answer (let’s be real, I know a lot of you just read this snippet) is ‘not unless you want to,’ as with all things at Brown. I’d like to take this time to dispel some myths and clarify what I’ve seen at Brown, coming from an extremely conservative community. So, what does liberal really mean, re: Brown?

Myth 1: Everyone is super liberal politically. 

I think this myth exists as a result of the nature of a “liberal” education. Like all other Ivy League and liberal arts colleges, Brown wants to create critical thinkers who lead in their fields. This inherently requires people to have open minds academically and be able to grapple with complex issues of race, gender, identity, and place (among many other things). Even if you go into a ‘conservative’ concentration, you’ll still encounter these topics on campus. Yes, political discussion outside of the classroom tends to lean “left” but there is a conservative community on campus which publishes a magazine (not to mention plenty of opportunities to volunteer or staff for politicians of your preferred party). However, I have never felt pressured by a professor to only make “liberal” statements in class (often times, taking the conservative side either as your legitimate beliefs or as a Devil’s Advocate is appreciated and really helps class discussion), nor felt them push liberal beliefs on me. Student groups are also usually open to differing opinions, although if you hold conservative beliefs, you’ll definitely receive some questions or debate.

The good news is, if you don’t want to participate in political discussion on campus, you can choose activities and groups that don’t engage in politics and find other ways to spend your time. I thought leaving Tennessee that I’d finally be surrounded by like-minded, liberal people. Turns out, I didn’t know how “liberal” you could be politically, and have learned that my opinions on most political topics are much more nuanced than I’d realized at home. I’ve also realized that voicing opposition to “liberal” opinions or qualifying my beliefs hasn’t ostracized me here, which has helped me both clarify my own beliefs and appreciate those of people who feel strongly.

Myth 2: Everyone is super liberal socially. 

This myth is perhaps the most prevalent, and to certain extents, true. At Brown, you are expected to act as an adult and treat others as adults. This means no curfews, no room checks (other than for safety), no regulations on appearance or dress code, no requirement that you attend class (other than what your professor imposes), and no way to avoid being around people who may have incredibly different identities, goals, and habits than you. These, to me, are excellent qualities for a university to have, because you learn the value of your education and spend a lot of time making choices that define who you are. As with any college campus, you’ll find people with multicolored hair, tattoos and piercings, body hair, and clothing that may strike you as “liberal”. The great thing is that this type of student body encourages self-expression and body positivity. If you want to rock purple hair, do it. If you don’t, don’t. It’s that simple. If you want to present yourself more conservatively, you absolutely can.

Living at Brown (and honestly, in Providence), you will engage with people who might not make lifestyle choices you share or want; however, you will not feel pressured to participate in anything you do not want to, and will learn to feel confident in your boundaries, expectations, and choices. These are all key parts of learning to live with people, learn from people, and become your own post-college adult. If you do not enjoy who you live with freshman year or feel strongly about living in substance-free or single-gender housing, you can absolutely choose to do so and Brown will make you feel very comfortable. If after freshman year you want a change, you can also do that! You never need to (or should) feel uncomfortable in your living situation. In this sense, Brown is “liberal” but welcoming to people of all backgrounds.

Myth 3: Brown is perceived as super liberal and as a result, I will be. 

One thing I worried about going into my job search was whether or not employers would take me seriously coming from Brown (I needn’t have worried). Brown attracts recruiters from literally all of the top companies, and has alums everywhere in the world (almost, if not literally). I didn’t have any trouble getting my foot in the door as a Brown student, nor have I had any negative responses (aside from the one woman at the movie theater that one time). Sure, people ask whether or not the reality is the public perception, but people know that movies and Hollywood make Brown out to be a hyperbolic version of what it really is.

Obviously, this varies regionally, but the overall perception I’ve gotten from nearly everyone on the East Coast and abroad is that Brown is perceived as a great school and one I should be proud to have on my diploma. Yes, coming from a conservative community, I expected to be in liberal heaven at Brown. Well, I learned two things: one, I’m more moderate than I expected, and two, you will learn from whoever you are surrounded by, whether staunch Republicans or those feeling the Bern. Brown may have a big reputation, but there’s something for everyone here.

Want more photos and FAQ updates? Check out @thebruinclub on Twitter! Have questions or comments for me? Want more details?  Send an email to and I’ll get back ASAP!


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