Solomon: Building a Better Home

We can better cope with stress by utilizing Dartmouth’s unique resources.

by Ioana Solomon | 4/27/17 12:25am

An admitted student and his father walked through the admissions office door during one of my shifts last week. The father asked me, “Is Dartmouth a really big party school? Because if so, it probably isn’t the right place for my son.” I had no time to share with him everything I had on my mind. My brief answer to them was that Dartmouth is known for far more important things than its Greek culture and that while no campus will ever be perfect, the issues that plague us also plague every other elite institution in the country. I then passed them on to an admissions officer, who sat down with them for a lengthier conversation.

I thought about the answer I gave to that kid’s father, and the hundreds of similar answers I had given to visitors, prospective students and admitted students. Those answers were never enough. They never felt satisfying — not to me, and likely not to them. Worst of all, they never felt honest.

Whenever I am asked what I dislike about Dartmouth, I feel an inherent obligation, as someone who works in admissions, to sugarcoat the negatives. My job is to present Dartmouth in a good light, to attest as enthusiastically as possible to it being a college worth attending, and part of that job involves a level of deception.

The peak of my pride in Dartmouth was when I opened my acceptance letter. Gradually, the disappointment, frustration and isolation I have experienced here has left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Some of that is particular to me or is to be expected with any institution or environment. But we hide behind that excuse. We are not perfect, and it seems like we have given up any attempt to be. We have gained a harmful reputation as a “party school,” and instead of trying to correct it, we have embraced it and turned it into an object of perverse pride.

In a complicated mesh of misinterpreted traditions, stereotypes we think are far too ingrained to correct and a problematic “work hard, play hard” mantra lies an inability to cope with our stress. For most of us, binge drinking and meaningless hookups give our overloaded selves a temporary escape — until we wake up the next morning, hungover, sinking deeper into the quicksand of problems that always blow up just when we think they’ll go away. The next weekend, we turn again to alcohol and hookups until we form a cycle that is almost impossible to break.

Most of us are aware that our coping mechanisms are ineffective. But we have entrenched them so deeply into our culture that trying to break away means accepting outsider status. We are afraid of facing our problems sober. We are afraid of doing anything without someone by our side. We are afraid of not belonging.

While no one is immune from the issues we face and there are plenty of campuses across the nation that have it worse, we are uniquely equipped to be far better than we are. The common excuse for our heavy drinking culture and pervasive Greek system is isolation. But that’s counterintuitive. City schools where peace and quiet are rare if nonexistent are just as “ragey.” Their level of stress is not comparable with ours. We live in a small, peaceful town, surrounded by beautiful nature. When we resort to drinking for entertainment and stress relief, we ignore everything around us that makes Dartmouth remarkable. We have no excuse to be called a “party school” when we have open rivers and hiking trails that students around the country can only dream of — natural, healthy outlets to relieve our stress.

I want the enthusiasm with which I speak about Dartmouth to be more than a mask I take off after my shift is over. I want us to be a place where students come for a healthy education, not liver damage. We can take advantage of what we have around us, we can find more sustainable ways to cope with pressure and we can be stronger, individually and communally. Making Dartmouth more attractive to future generations is not something we can leave to the surface-level solutions of the administration. Students need to take the initiative. We do not only need to be better. We owe it to those who made Dartmouth home for us and to those for whom it will be home once we leave.