Cultural Tool Kits

by Mary Liza Hartong | 10/30/14 7:49pm

10.31.14.mirror.toolkit.backpack_Natalie-Cantave
Source: Natalie Cantave

When you came to Dartmouth, you probably brought your backpack, notebooks and pillow. Did you know you also brought your tool kit?

In her book “Talk of Love,” sociologist Ann Swidler describes what she calls “an oddly assorted tool kit,” or, in other words, a set of skills, assumptions and experiences that makes up each person’s personal culture. Your tool kit, she writes, is what you bring with you to any interaction or situation, and it is what you draw on to make decisions.

College counselors and high school teachers often speak of preparing students for college, but my question in starting this article was this — are certain people, armed with certain tool kits, more prepared for Dartmouth than others? I’m not just talking about academics. In fact, if there’s any aspect of the tool kit that is pretty similar across the board for most Dartmouth students, it is probably academics.

I wanted to understand just what it is that makes freshmen so vulnerable and what may be missing from their tool kits that causes such a cultural difference between upper- and lowerclassmen. What tools do Dartmouth students bring with them to college? What tools do they leave behind? What tools would they give to freshmen if they could?

Two of the six students I spoke with had taken a gap year before starting Dartmouth, an experience they believed had heightened their feelings of security.

Leah Alpern ’18 lived in Casablanca, Morocco, after graduating from a diverse, mid-sized high school in Portland, Oregon.

“I felt secure in my ability to make decisions that I was comfortable with and that I wouldn’t regret later,” Alpern said. “I feel like I know myself really well as a person and I know kind of, not what I stand for, but what situations I like and what situations I don’t.”

Alpern said before college she felt uncertain about how the people around her at Dartmouth would act, as she grew up in a very accepting community and was unsure how this would translate to her new home.

Max Jentzsch ’15, who is from Germany, used his gap year to work at a center for drug addicts, which he said shaped how he approached his initial time at the College.

“That was one of the things that I was sure about and that had shaped me before coming to Dartmouth, working in that consumption room,” Jentzsch said. “You talk to people. You hear a lot of really fascinating stories.”

For Jentzsch, “everything else” was uncertain, especially Dartmouth’s academic standards.

Academic standards as well as the party culture were common concerns among those I interviewed, despite their high school experiences that range from home schooling, to public, private and boarding schools.

Eva Petzinger ’15 graduated from an inner-city public school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania before attending Dartmouth. Because her high school curriculum was less demanding, she learned to teach herself and others outside of school. When she came to Dartmouth, she began to feel a type of pressure that she had not experienced before.

“I felt like I had to quickly start building myself up into something or make myself into something prestigious,” Petzinger said. “It seemed like everybody had a goal that they were working towards, and I didn’t have anything like that, and that made me feel inferior or less successful or less about-to-be successful.”

Ledah Geller ’16, a Miami, Florida, native and graduate of an Episcopalian private high school, expressed a similar sentiment — that it is acceptable to reinvent yourself in college.

“I wish I would have known that it’s okay not to know what type of person you want to be when you walk on this campus,” Geller said. “I think a lot of people make the mistake of trying to continue the reputation they had in high school, and when that doesn’t happen they get disappointed, but it’s a different environment.”

An issue that came up in all of my interviews was freshmen vulnerability — a trait that so many first-year students come in with, which often puts them in danger. I wanted to know why.

Andrew Pillsbury ’15, a homeschooled Hanover native, hypothesized that some of this danger stems from the quest for acceptance.

“You come in as a freshmen, and you’re pretty insecure and you want to fit in somewhere, and you want validation and acceptance from outside yourself,” Pillsbury said. “You want to be someone who is cool even if that’s not what makes you the happiest.”

For Petzinger, making sure that what you’re doing makes you happy is the best way to check in with yourself.

“In every chunk of your life, just take a step back to evaluate, ‘Am I happy to be doing what I’m doing?’” she said. “I think sometimes people just do things because they get swept along by what a bunch of people are doing.”

Alpern added that had she not taken her gap year, she might not have perceived the real dangers that can arise from blindly following the crowd.

“Now I realize that I’m not in control of everything — I’m only in control of myself,” she said. “It’s the realization that it’s not always safe. Unfortunately, there are people in the world who won’t think twice about hurting you.”

In questioning others about vulnerability, I often came across the concept of the Dartmouth X — the idea that women are at their peak value freshman year and lose prestige from there, while men start at their lowest point and gain value over time. In essence, it suggests that Dartmouth values inexperience in women and experience in men.

This concept felt antiquated and insulting to many students I interviewed. Mae Hardebeck ’18 attended a mid-sized public school in Needham, Massachusetts, and had not heard of the Dartmouth X.

“That sounds like an ancient myth of the past that I would hope people would use ironically,” Hardebeck said. “I think that’s a horrid idea and so old-fashioned and not something that I would expect of a place where intellectuals and smart people come together.”

Jentzsch agreed, adding that the phenomena is representative of gender dynamics on campus that are “absolutely appalling.” To counter these challenging gender norms, Jentzsch called on Dartmouth students to value each other more as equal human beings.

Jentzsch’s statement got me thinking about relationships between upper-and underclassmen, and how they could be the answer to this dangerous vulnerability.

“When I was a freshman, I found this girl in one of my classes who I wanted to be just like,” Geller said when asked about the dynamic between upper- and underclassmen. “Her confidence in class was so cool and she kind of embodied what I wanted to turn into in college. I picked her brain. I told her my story. My advice — find someone who you look up to in the classroom setting and become friends.”

Bonds between older and younger students, as well as a mutual respect for everyone’s value here, would certainly help freshmen make the transition from high school to college. But what do we do about vulnerability? As much as we can try to respect and protect younger students, we can’t be with them in every situation. In the end, we can’t put tools into anyone else’s tool kits because we have to cultivate them on our own.

“I can think back to a lot of advice that I got as a freshman that didn’t make sense then that makes sense now,” Petzinger said.

Yet Geller said that while people tried to give her good advice, she’s glad she didn’t live by anyone else’s experience.

“It’s been my college career — I’ve made my own mistakes,” she said.

Whether you’re a senior or a freshman, or somewhere in between, take some time to reflect on the tools in your own personal kit. How do these cultural tools help you navigate your time on campus? What would you take with you out of the confines of Dartmouth?