Jeon: Hamstrung on Hamster Wheels

by Min Kyung Jeon | 10/4/15 6:30pm

The quintessential Dartmouth student has a double major in economics and geography or some such eclectic combination, partakes in an intense club sport — if he or she are not already a varsity athlete — and nonchalantly receives hundreds of likes on improbably “candid” Facebook profile pictures of themselves at their Greek house’s formal, all the while not neglecting to call their parents once a week. On a campus where “A-side” and “B-side” adopt an overtone more sinister than their original reference to the two surfaces of a music recording, we often feel pressured to jump on the bandwagon for myriad pursuits without giving due consideration to alternatives.

In my first year, the single most overheard and overwhelming sentence was, “Are you going out this weekend?” Sophomore year, I rushed with the vast majority of ’16 women, many of whom — like I — had previously disavowed the very concept of a sorority. Junior year, I temporarily reveled in the pretense of cosmopolitanism that my foreign study program in London afforded me, but upon my return to the College, promptly became jaded. Only several weeks into senior year, “SWUG” has already entered my parlance — the irony not lost on my inner critic who knows how desperately I want to make my last year count.

By word of mouth, crippling depression and social anxiety permeate this campus. In my ongoing struggle against these demons and from my conversations with similarly situated individuals, I have located a cause in Dartmouth’s hyper-competitive and –conformist culture. This culture looks on with distaste when a student enthusiastically contributes to discussions in a “layup” class, adamantly avoids eye contact with acquaintances for no other reason than potential awkwardness and remains willfully indifferent to those in unconventional and undervalued communities like coeducational Greek houses and minority affinity groups.

I am naturally verbose and sensitive, attuned to others’ emotions to a fault. For instance, I invariably reread my sent emails and occasionally compose follow-ups if I think the recipient might be hurt by my prior message. Over my three years here, however, I have come to a wrenching realization that most people do not reciprocate even a fraction of the care I invest in interacting with them. Blitzes inviting “unicorns” to meals have gone unanswered, tentative smiles across the lecture room have met blank stares and attempts at dialogue in my sorority and upperclassman dormitory have dissipated with perfectly cordial yet decidedly guarded responses.

Granted, expecting others to be exactly like me in their modes of communication would amount to tyranny. Nevertheless, I believe that something in the collective psyche of Dartmouth students inhibits genuine interactions across divergent backgrounds and prevents the formation of a real, far-reaching sense of community. Gradually confined in our self-selective “squads,” we lose the ability to be truly open to and vulnerable with others in all our weird, nerdy, mortifying and excruciating glory. Elusive yet insidious, Dartmouth’s culture lionizes frat stars at the expense of those who frequent the library on weekends, promotes the feel-good rhetoric of diversity and inclusion that rings hollow in the face of the homogeneous demographics of numerous Greek houses and strangely discourages people from continuing intellectual conversations outside the classroom.

It is a platitude that college students are stressed in a variety of ways. It is an even more tiresome cliché that Dartmouth students are highly accomplished and competitive — and that precisely these admirable attributes sometimes result in mental health issues. But this does not mean that we should not continually examine the sources of these problems to ameliorate the harmful effects.

In the ever-spinning wheels of Dartmouth’s social milieu, we often play the part of hamsters, frantically pedaling and conflating complacency with happiness. The prevailing wisdom of pop psychology tells us to love ourselves, but at the same time, we must constantly reflect on our values and default cognitive processes. For example, when we justify the selection mechanisms of prestigious a cappella groups and Greek houses that leave some deeply alienated as inevitably selective like Dartmouth itself, we gloss over the fact that meritocracy is hard to approximate for some of us.

It is with wry acknowledgement that I issue these correctives, for I have been complicit in many exclusionary practices on campus. But the first step to sustainable cultural change lies with self-reflection and self–criticism. The reassuring attribute of any culture is its profound malleability. Culture is not some monolithic behemoth that defines and confines us. Currently, many of us in our individual cliques are as warm, friendly and welcoming as can be — but with those at the margins or outside of those cliques, we are often inadvertently cold, exclusive and insular. By facing our own inner hypocrisies and contradictions, we can close chasms between far-flung communities.

So next time you spot a long-estranged Trippee across the Green, simply say hello. The next time you hear a classmate make an insightful comment during a discussion, approach her after class to continue the conversation. The next time you automatically assign greater social value to that cool, “relevant” frat-dude ’16 over that reserved but kind undergraduate advisor whose floor meetings announcements you always ignore, pause and think.