Brittany Cahoon has a habit of bucking the trend.
With her friends heading off to the big state universities in her native Florida, Brittany Cahoon sought a different path by coming to the more modestly sized Tufts. And while it may seem hard to understand why a Floridian would make the trek north for four years—"I didn't think it would be this cold in October," she confesses—the network of extended family she has in nearby Manchester-by-the-Sea helps explain her decision.
But one of the biggest examples of her tendency to buck trends came last year, when she co-founded a gay-straight alliance at her, as she describes it, "straight-laced" high school.
"It was pretty successful considering all the negative attention that we got," she recalls, citing students who wore t-shirts condemning homosexuality and staged other protests. "For the kids that were involved in the club, it was a really good outlet."
She founded the club after participating in a conference with the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network where she learned about leadership and the importance of diversity.
The experience was formative for Cahoon.
"I realized I was taking a huge risk. Some of my friends questioned why I was doing it," she says. "It taught me a lot about myself… It's OK to say what you want to say and be who you want to be. You don't have to put on a mask or anything."
At Tufts, Cahoon has thrown herself into a variety of activities, serving as treasurer of the Freshman Class Council, joining Tufts Wilderness Club and Tufts Ballroom Dance, as well as becoming a Big Sister. In the classroom, she's taking French to prepare for a study-abroad in France in a couple of years.
"It's a really good community," she says. "Anything that you want to do you can do. You just have to find the right group. Everyone's really eager to help you get involved."
The biggest surprise has been "that everyone actually is as nice as they seemed when I came on the tour." As Cahoon considers becoming a tour guide herself, she seems motivated to give future prospective students the same pleasant surprise.
Whether she's in the classroom or the community, Edna Gonzalez always has her heritage in mind.
Born in Mexico, she moved to the United States at age three. But she first experienced "culture shock" when she moved across town and found herself in a less diverse high school.
"That's where I was first confronted with actually being a minority," she recalls. "It was a hard transition." So how did Gonzalez adapt? She literally dove right in, becoming active in varsity swimming as well as the golf team and student council.
"It educated me a lot about how stereotypes are not true," says the political science major and aspiring lawyer. "You have this image, 'Oh, you're a minority student, you can't make it, you're not good enough,' and I got involved and they welcomed me perfectly."
Gonzalez also threw herself into community work, focusing on projects concerning minority kids. But her motivation to volunteer for Las Vegas' rape crisis center came from a different place.
"I went there for help because I had been victimized," she says. "From there it evolved more into a thing for me to heal but also for me to give back to the community."
At every turn, Gonzalez pursues her ambitions undaunted. She has interned with one of the largest law firms in Nevada and this summer hopes to intern for either the Las Vegas office of movie company MGM or the United Nations. After college, she's aiming for law school.
Gonzalez says she was drawn to Tufts by its commitment to citizenship and its "service around minority groups." She is currently working with a student group called The Student Acting for Immigration Reform Coalition.
"Hopefully it will be a group where we can get hands-on experience and work with other groups in other colleges or even state legislators to see how we can change immigration reform," the freshman says. She also hopes to get involved with the Leonard Carmichael Society to tutor kids in area schools, particularly ESL students.
"I think my favorite thing has to be the academics," says Gonzalez of Tufts. "You can tell the students really care and the professors care, as well. You get one-on-one attention. If you're willing to go a mile, they'll go a mile for you, too."
Most first-year students don't get to know each other over sax solos. But that's how Andrew Mulherkar introduced himself to his classmates at the New England Conservatory during a freshman class jam session.
"Once you play and interact musically with these people, you feel like you know them on a different level, even before you get a chance to talk with them," says the dual-degree student.
A tenor sax player, Andrew came to Tufts because of the dual-degree program with NEC.
"You can't do this sort of thing anywhere else," he says. "I knew that Tufts had a really strong academic reputation, but I wanted in some way to continue the advanced study of music, so this is perfect."
While Mulherkar hopes to emerge from Tufts as a "Renaissance man," schooled in his many academic interests, he's still waiting for a focus to emerge.
"Right now, I have no idea what I'm going to major in," he confesses. But much like jazz solos feed into each other during an ensemble performance, Mulherkar has noticed the connections emerging between different courses.
"All my classes have sort of been tying together in unexpected ways," he observes. "In philosophy, we'll be talking about the existence of evil and then someone will mention the possibility of something in the brain that causes people to commit violent acts, and that ties into neuroscience and psychology in general."
So far, Mulherkar has managed to balance his school and social lives on both campuses. At Tufts, he's hoping to check out more of the lectures as well as more of Buddhist Sangha (Tufts Association of South Asians), and the cycling and mountaineering clubs.
Mulherkar also hopes to spread awareness of the arts, particularly his passion for jazz, by bringing his classmates to musical performances and sharing what he finds so compelling about the genre.
"Jazz music," he says, "is really unique in that it focuses mainly on improvisation, which is basically individual creativity."
Jane Song has lived half her life in the United States and half in her native South Korea, but the situation in North Korea is never far from her mind.
"I always just have this impulse to look into this issue," she says. "I kept up with the news, all of these horrific things that were going on, and I just wanted to do something and learn more about it."
In high school, Song organized toothbrush and plastics collection drives and other fundraisers to help North Korean civilians, as well as awareness initiatives and prayer meetings. Now at Tufts, she has taken an active role in organizing the Tufts chapter of an advocacy group called Liberty North Korea.
The ability to get involved in international issues is one thing that drew Song to Tufts. During high school, she went on mission trips to Mexico, where she helped build houses, and China, where she secretly taught English to students.
"I really enjoyed learning in an international perspective, particularly after those trips and being born somewhere else," says Song, who is studying Chinese in anticipation of traveling there to study during her junior year. "I was blown away by the number of international students here and different types of people who go here."
Song is wasting no time taking advantage of what Tufts has to offer. She is considering getting involved with EPIIC, and with her acceptance to Tufts she also received admission into the Tisch Scholars program. "I told my parents, 'OK, I'm going to Tufts because of this,'" she recalls. As for academics, she is still sorting out her interests and finding a focus.
"I always had a huge respect for doctors and people who do humanitarian work for any countries, so I'm kind of pre-med right now," she says. "When I came I declared myself as an IR major but it's really unsure."
No matter which direction she ends up heading, Song is determined to go at full speed.
"You can always push yourself harder and go the extra mile," she says. "There's so much that can be done. And I guess I just want to explore that."
Shea Sullivan has always gravitated toward the sciences. "I don't feel I'm innately good at them, but I try real hard because I want to be a doctor."
And not just any doctor: "I want to be a reconstructive plastic surgeon who specializes in burns," Sullivan says, explaining that her desire stems from her own burn experience at age six, when her Halloween costume caught on fire.
The experience shaped Sullivan's career goal, but she has balanced her pursuit of science with her deep interest in the arts—fostered in part by her parents. They have written for TV sitcoms and animated children's programs, and her dad was once a professional musician playing with the Pointer Sisters and Tom Jones. While she works through her prerequisites for medical school, Sullivan is weighing art history as a possible major.
"I need a creative outlet," she says. "It's definitely a big part of my life that I will always maintain, even when I have my own practice back in L.A."
Since arriving at Tufts, Sullivan has had to adjust to the quieter lifestyle of the Northeast.
"I feel like I'm in Europe and I'm being one of those loud Americans," she jokes. "It's L.A., we're full of energy. We can't help it. We can't suppress it."
Energy is one thing Sullivan doesn't lack. She has immersed herself in the arts scene on campus and off —by joining in the sketch comedy group Major: Undecided, participating in a jazz ensemble, hoping to get her plays produced by the Bare Bodkin student-authored troupe, and attending several rock concerts in Boston.
While she was drawn to Tufts by its strengths in both the sciences and the arts, she was also swayed by the recommendations of friends who saw Tufts as the perfect school for her. "When I got here, I was like, 'Oh, they're right,’” she says. “ There are just little things about it. Another one of those gut feelings, I guess."
After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which killed one million people, Pacific Tuyishime and his family were forced to start over. But while Tuyishime has gone on to receive an international education, he knows that his fellow Rwandans are not all as fortunate.
"I was lucky enough to make it this far in terms of the opportunities I got," he says. "That puts me under more pressure to come out here and learn as much as I can and take in as much knowledge as I can to go back and basically help."
Tuyishime says that the genocide affected everyone in Rwanda in different ways. For him, it served as a call to action.
"I feel like my life has a purpose to it, which is basically to go back and help," he says. "Every day that's what keeps me focused."
Education, never a top priority when Tuyishime was a child, became paramount when he received the top score in his country's national exams just before high school. For the last two years of high school, he attended an international school in the United Kingdom that emphasized diversity and community service. In searching for those same values in an American university, he found Tufts.
"I was pretty much in love with the place before I ever got to it," he says.
Tuyishime is currently enrolled in the School of Engineering, though he is not sure which type of engineering he will focus on or even if he will remain there.
"As an engineer from a good institution, you can come back to your own country and create and build and change things," he says, while noting that he’s not “closing the door on other possibilities.”
Since arriving at Tufts, he's focused mainly on academics, though he is interested in getting involved with Tisch College and joining African student groups. An avid basketball player, Tuyishime may try out for the varsity team once he gets more grounded academically. Above all else, he keeps in mind what brought him here and where he wants to go.
"I feel like I'm focused on what I want to accomplish," he says. "I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I know what it is."
Profiles written by Georgiana Cohen
Homepage and banner image by Winslow Martin for Tufts University Photo; illustration by Joanie Tobin for Tufts University Photo. Portraits by Melody Ko, University Photographer.
This story originally ran on Oct. 23, 2006.