Open Curriculum: “I was given the power to nurture my own learning”

Nadirah Moreland ’94 shares the “magic of Brown” with the next generation of learners.

Nadirah Moreland ’94 knows a thing or two about the merits of a student-driven education. As the director of community service at the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C.—and with over 20 years as an equity and social justice educator—she’s no stranger to drawing from her own experience at Brown and beyond to help bring communities together.

As the University continues its yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Open Curriculum, alumni are sharing their reflections on Brown’s distinctive, student-centered approach to undergraduate education. Here, Moreland discusses her own experience at Brown, the ways in which the Open Curriculum continues to help her help those in need, and why reconnecting with Brown years after graduating can be so rewarding.

Nadirah Moreland '94


The power to nurture my own learning

Why did you choose Brown?

I was excited by the idea that Brown respected me as a learner. I felt encouraged to chart my own way. When I visited and saw how much creativity, imagination, rigor, and learning happened here—I was excited by it! I don't think I would've been nurtured in the same way in some of the other schools that I was considering at that time. 

How did the Open Curriculum have an influence on your education? 

The Open Curriculum offered me the opportunity to be open to whatever it was that I wanted to pursue. I didn't feel like I was locked into doing something that wasn't naturally part of what I needed to understand about the world.

At that time, I was very interested in the African diaspora, figuring out how we're connected, and asking: who are we as a people? There wasn't a course for that, so we created an independent study called "The Ties that Bind." This gave us a chance to think about what our relationships are to each other—and how history and literature help us to understand our respective identities. As I look at hip hop and the arts today, I continue to be fascinated by these things that are co-created across these boundaries. 

How did your undergraduate experience shape you?

As an undergraduate, the Open Curriculum helps and encourages you to find leaders, administrators, or teachers who are able to support you—it’s that opening up of a question or a problem. It was amazing to have opportunities to learn from the professors who themselves have such rich histories. 

It also offers us the opportunity to pursue our own understanding of big problems, big questions, or topics that are interrelated. For instance, in the independent study, I felt I was pursuing a question about society, education, identity. The Open Curriculum has allowed me to break open that inquiry, in ways that are awesome. 

How do you see the Open Curriculum playing out in your day-to-day work? 

As an educator, one of the things I remember from my classes was the idea of being a reflective practitioner. I think the Open Curriculum and the professors that I've had a chance to work with offered me the chance to reflect on my work with young people and see their power and potential.

Brown trusts you in your learning. Because I was given the power to nurture my own learning, I feel like I am able to empower the young people I work with to nurture their own learning. Young people come in with their own questions, or ideas, or problems, and I enjoy helping them build upon their own understanding and creativity as well. There's a lot of buzz around “design thinking” right now, but I think Brown's been doing it for 50 years. That's the gift of being a learner, a human, that you are able to bring the pursuit of understanding to others. 

Let’s switch gears and talk about your volunteer roles with Brown. When did you start volunteering for Brown as an alumna?

Volunteering as an interviewer began as an easy way to reflect on some of the power and love that I've had here—and to tap into some of the imagination and power of young people who are considering college. It's really wonderful because I think it offers you a chance to come back to understanding what life is like as a student imagining college and reflect back to them some of your own experience.

What would you say to alumni who maybe haven't been as connected since graduation? 

I think every time I meet other alumni or current students, I feel nurtured—in the ideas that I'm considering, in the ways in which I want to grow or maybe challenge myself. I think being active in your class allows you to tap into the magic of Brown. 

This is a privileged experience and being able to be involved as a class leader, as an interviewer, etc., are all ways of giving back a little bit. The community has to nurture itself; it’s not going to be anything without all of our respective little "this little light of mine"— shining ourselves into it. Through volunteering and being involved in local activities I feel like I'm learning and continuing to pursue some of the power and possibility that I felt as a student here 25 years ago. And coming back to campus is an investment in myself as much as it is an opportunity to be a part of the Brown community. 

You mentioned your first volunteer role being an alumni interviewer: why was that an important role for you to play?

As alumni, we have a responsibility to demystify the institution for the next generation. There are a lot of people for whom going away to college is not something that is understood by everybody in the family. My great-grandmother, the year that I started, she sent me a card—and it had five dollars in it! She sent me five dollars and I cherished that so much. 

I think that there's a lot of people for whom the opportunity to connect with you, to hear your story—and for you to see their imagination and the things that they've been pursuing in their respective seventeen, eighteen years of life—being able to make that connection for the institution is really important.

While at Brown, Nadirah was active with the Swearer Center for Service, traveled abroad for the first time with the Brown in Nigeria program, and helped revise The African Sun while involved in the Organization of United African Peoples. After receiving a Master’s in education from the University of Michigan, she returned to Oakland, CA to teach before moving to Washington DC in 2004. She’s currently an active participant in the Brown Club of DC.

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