Cozily sporting fuzzy purple slippers, Danielle V. Brown ’05 says she loves the snow. Brown hails from Durango, a tiny town nestled in the southwest corner of Colorado amidst the Rockies. A self-described “intense outdoor fanatic,” she has been skiing, backpacking and rock climbing since the age of four.
Her hometown boasts only about 12,000 residents, and while she can’t stop talking about the landscape, there wasn’t much else to talk about while she was growing up. “There is nothing intellectually stimulating there,” she says. Durango High School, which Brown attended, enrolls about 1,200 students, a good portion of whom drop out to farm on nearby ranches, and a majority of whom go on to Colorado colleges. Brown concedes that her school lacked many resources, but says that she was able to take eight Advanced Placement classes and was lucky to find supportive teachers.
Brown had to do much of her learning on her own. “I went out of my way to teach myself things my high school didn’t offer,” she says. Brown taught herself AP physics, statistics and chemistry. Industry and modesty are clearly two of her virtues.
Brown visited the Harvard campus during a family vacation at the tender age of eight. A decade later, she returned during a summer college tour on the east coast. Here to see Tufts, MIT and Amherst, she visited Harvard on a whim and fell in love. “It’s a good thing I stopped by,” she says.
Brown was accepted by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth. She made her decision during a routine run one afternoon. “It all of a sudden hit me,” she says. “I remember stopping dead in the middle of the street. ‘I’m going to Harvard!’” Her parents, both computer programmers who shuttled their daughter great distances for gymnastics and diving programs, were “very, very supportive. They didn’t care how much it would cost.”
As far as Durango High’s staff can tell, Brown is the first person from her school to attend Harvard. Her principal announced her choice over the school intercom. Teachers threw parties for her in class. She appeared in the local newspaper. Brown was flattered, but flustered. “It was really neat,” she explains. “But after I got accepted, I felt people looked at me differently. They were intimidated!” Such admiration continues to frustrate her at times: she says neighbors shower her with questions when she returns (“Is Harvard ungodly hard?”), and lifelong friends hold back when relating their own accomplishments. “It’s really irritating,” Brown says with a sadness in her voice.
At Harvard, she is free of such obstacles. Brown says she’s captivated by her studies as a Biochemistry concentrator, and she delights in an atmosphere in which “it’s not uncool to talk about academic things.” After years of explaining concepts to her peers in Durango, Brown says, “It’s so wonderful to learn from other people. I can communicate with them on such a high level.”
But what about her workload? “Oh God!” she laughs. Every week, Brown balances 27 hours of class, nine hours of lab, 15 hours of dancing (she’s an assistant captain of the Harvard-Radcliffe Ballroom Dance Club) and a job as a course assistant for an Extension School calculus class (to pay for those dance lessons). Sometimes it all scares her, but her optimism and confidence win out. “I’ll get through it,” she declares. “I do not procrastinate. I plan ahead.” When the topic of grades surfaces, Brown pauses, and an unusual silence fills the air. She nervously twists her long blonde hair and eventually divulges that she won the Detur Award last year for being one of the top students in her first-year class. “I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging!” she says.
She stresses that she is here for knowledge and not for grades. “If I learn it,” she explains, “the grades will follow.”
And as for Harvard students, Brown announces with her signature smile, “People here are so fascinating!” She admits coming to campus with the stereotypical “Harvard image” in mind. But now she prizes her numerous and diverse friendships, and lists “the people” as her favorite thing about Harvard.
Brown says her small-town background has motivated her to explore Boston—she goes to movies, stores and dance clubs as much as she can. She excelled in her most recent ballroom competition, and she’s been invited to join Pleiades, a new women’s social club. Meanwhile, her brother Jared has applied to Harvard, and Brown hopes he’ll have the honor of being the second person from her high school to attend.
Despite her gushing enthusiasm for all things Harvard, Brown still has a soft spot for her mountains back home. She eagerly shows off a bedroom wall plastered with dozens of breathtaking snapshots of Colorado. “I’m not unhappy in any way,” she says. “I don’t have anything bad to say about Harvard.” She reconsiders. “I wish we had mountains. But at least we have snow.”