A Sense of Comfort and Place

by Caroline Berens | 3/5/15 7:45pm

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Source: Alison Guh, The Dartmouth Senior Staff

It was a crisp day in fall 2013 and Joby Bernstein ’17 was heading to the Alumni Gym, an extra bounce in his step as he anticipated his first day of swim practice.

Unlike most walk-ons to the varsity swim team, who often email the coaches over the summer to secure a spot on the roster, Bernstein hadn’t corresponded with the coaches until very recently. But he was unfazed. He decided that he wanted to pursue swimming at the College during his last high school meet, and he trained intensely over the summer to prepare.

Bernstein reached the gym and, unsure if he would be welcomed, chose not to change in the swim team’s locker room. Ignoring burgeoning feelings of unease, he changed in the regular men’s locker room by himself. He headed down to the pool with a confident smile, eager to return to familiar territory. Suddenly, he was stopped by one of the swim team’s captains. The older student peered at him with confusion, but then her expression cleared.

“This isn’t club swimming,” she said.

Bernstein quickly explained that the coach had given him the okay to come. The captain let him practice, but several other swimmers seemed to eye Bernstein with confusion.

The following few weeks were no better for Bernstein than the first day. He remained unaware of the team’s nightly post-practice group dinners and continued to change in the regular men’s locker room.

Fast forward to winter 2015. Bernstein sits at the Class of 1953 Commons surrounded by members of the swim team. His tan skin bears the traces of the training trip the team took together to Hawaii over the winter interim period. Bernstein now attributes his initial discomfort to the fact that nobody was expecting him on the team. His perception, he said, was likely very exaggerated. A few weeks in, he started to feel more comfortable and accepted once he got to know the other swimmers. He now considers joining the swim team once of the best decisions he’s ever made, he said.

“The swim team is definitely ‘home.’” Bernstein said. “It’s the most inclusive thing I’ve ever experienced outside of my own family.”

Bernstein said that the swim team fits his personal description of home, which he thinks equates to a community where one can speak freely without self-consciousness.

“With the men’s team, I feel free to express whatever’s on my mind — everything from philosophy to swimming to random banter about Dartmouth,” Bernstein said.

Although the team is an organization as opposed to physical space, Bernstein said that he still considers the team itself his home.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re in the pool, on a training trip, traveling to a meet or sitting at dinner at FoCo. When I’m with the team, I feel at home,” he said.

Students across campus said they find home in groups and physical spaces alike.

Women’s rowing team member Margo Cox ’15 now thinks of the team’s boathouse as home, but the sentiment was not immediate.

“My freshman fall I was very timid, sort of on edge,” Cox said. “I thought a lot about what I was doing, what I was saying.”

That feeling disappeared over the years, Cox said, as she became more familiar with the team. Now one of the women’s rowing captains, representing Dartmouth athletics in her DP2 shirt, she is the picture of a seasoned athlete. Unlike Bernstein, however, Cox said that the physical space of the boathouse is necessary for her to feel at home.

“I definitely feel a familiar sense of comfort when the team is at FoCo, for example,” Cox said. “But being in a space like the boathouse takes it to a more meaningful level.”

Psychological and brain sciences and Tuck School of Business professor Judith White explained that “home” doesn’t necessarily need to be manifested in a physical space.

“It’s all about having strong social bonds and people accepting who you are,” White explained. “The group has to validate and reflect your identity. Home is where you can be your whole self — all of your identities are recognized, valued and appreciated.”

Cox says the shift in feeling these sentiments mostly occurred during her sophomore summer.

“We’d go down to the boathouse every day and it would be so beautiful. I’d spend most of the day doing homework, sometimes eating meals, by the [Connecticut] River,” she said.

Ledyard Canoe Club vice president Ari Koeppel ’15 also experienced a more gradual process of feeling at home in the group. His sophomore year, he said, he felt a particular connection with the ’13s and ’14s. Living in the Ledyard clubhouse on the river during his sophomore summer, he said, enhanced his feelings of home with the group.

“Living down there on the waterfront, the clubhouse was a place that I could gather with my community and just hang out on any given night,” Koeppel said, his tracing the green Ledyard jacket that many of the club’s members wear.

He said that beyond its physical facility, Ledyard itself has “grounded” him at the College.

For others, the feeling of home arrives nearly instantaneously. Alpha Phi sorority president Courtney Wong ’15 said that the feeling of home arrived quickly once her class moved into the sorority’s house during her sophomore summer.

“It was a little scary — we didn’t know what we were doing — but also empowering,” she said. “We thought, this is our house, we’re in charge of it, and we can do what we want with it.”

She referenced the running joke that A Phi has a “kitchen table scene,” describing how some of the sisters sit at the house’s large kitchen table to complete homework — but mostly catch up with each other — at the end of each day.

“Dartmouth is a stressful place,” Wong said. “My home in A Phi has allowed me to release those stresses when I come home at the end of the day.”

Maia Salholz-Hillel ’15, the UGA of the Spanish-language affinity house La Casa, also referenced the support network of the house’s residents as an integral part of considering it her home.

“They’re the people who come up and check on me when I’m doing an application and ask how I’m doing, and know that I need a hug,” Salholz-Hillel said.

Like Bernstein, she said that she feels at home with the residents outside of La Casa, but she noted that the physical space does add to the sense of community.

“The space forces you to build a community — having coed bathrooms, a kitchen people actually use. You can tell when people haven’t washed their dirty dishes or when they walk up stairs with dirty shoes,” Salholz-Hillel said.

Sitting on a plush couch, surrounded by colorful paintings and bookshelves stuffed with novels and board games — as an aromatic dinner cooked in the house’s modern kitchen nearby — La Casa’s resident advisor Paola Cazares ’14 said she tries to make the house feel like home for residents, through activities like hosting “coffee and conversation hour” on Tuesdays. Making home-cooked meals regularly helps, she noted.

“I cook here a lot, so it always smells like food, which I think makes it warm and inviting,” Cazares said. “Sitting around the kitchen table and having a conversation adds to that too.”

The idea of meals constructing feelings of home is integral to Foley House, one of Dartmouth’s off-campus affinity houses, largely organized around the fact that residents cook for each other. The house features a colorful kitchen where residents cook dinners for each other Sunday through Thursday.

Serving his home cooked meal of spanakopita, roasted vegetables and bread from King Arthur Flower while other residents set the table with water-filled mason jars and silverware, Nick Thyr ’17 said that moments like this help Foley feel like home to him.

“It’s a place that feels lived in,” Thyr said. “There are things on the walls, there’s food on the table. There’s also a support network — I know whenever I’m here, there’s someone I can talk to.”

Thyr explained that his reason for applying to Foley House was two-pronged. He wanted to cook — something he missed during his freshman year — but he also wanted a cohesive community.

White said those sentiments of home are crucial, especially on a college campus.

“Home gives you the sense of security and belonging, and you need that as a strong base if you’re going to take risks,” White said, referencing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. “Close bonds and social support are crucial for your physical and mental health and overall well-being.”

Assistant dean of undergraduate students Brian Reed agreed.

“You need a sense of belonging, a sense of familiarity, before you can start excelling, whether it be academically, emotionally or spiritually,” he said.

Reed said, however, that people experience these feelings of home to varying degrees.

“Some people land on this campus, and it’s everything they thought it was going to be, down to the shade of grass on the Green,” he said. “And you’re going to find others for whom it’s going to take a little extra time.”

During freshman year, some students — often overachievers in high school — step foot in Hanover and feel panicked that they are no longer at the top, he said. Some start to question if they deserve their place here.

“Once people find that they simply need to tweak the way they go about their business, I see the confidence rebound,” Reed said. “I think that’s when one can feel at home, feel a sense of belonging.”

He noted, however, that some students do not find a home throughout their time at Dartmouth.

“At a minimum, I’ve seen folks make peace with Dartmouth,” he said. “But I can’t say it’s my sense that everybody would call this home.”

Fiona Bowen ’18 echoed Reed’s thoughts about her freshman year so far.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve found my home at Dartmouth or consider Dartmouth home,” Bowen said. “It just hasn’t happened yet.”

Bowen ascribes this to the adjustment that college brings, and said that it takes some time to feel comfortable here. She has, she said, developed close bonds, and she hopes to find a place she can call home here one day.

It’s precisely that — those experiences of forming close bonds and finding a sense of home — that Koeppel will take with him when he graduates.

“Some of my best memories from Dartmouth are times when a group of Ledyardites and I went off and explored some river nobody had heard about, and stopped by country stores and towns nobody heard about either,” he said. “Those experiences are what have grounded me in this place and made me find home in Ledyard.”