Seniors talk life experiences, lessons learned

by Eliza Jane Schaeffer | 6/9/17 9:20pm

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Doug Phipps ’17 will remain on campus after graduation to fulfill his obligations as First-Year Trips director.

Source: Courtesy of Doug Phipps

This article is featured in the 2017 Commencement & Reunions Issue.

Dartmouth operates in synchrony with the seasons. In the fall, the leaves change and the people change, and campus is smattered with new colors and new faces. In the winter, animals burrow into their nests and students burrow into their books, minimizing their exposure to the bitter cold. And in the spring, infant flowers and seniors both prepare for their entry into the “real world.”

I sat down to talk with three seniors on the brink of graduation. Listening as they described their regrets, lessons learned, advice and plans for the future, I realized that we — they, about to leave, and I, new to Dartmouth — were standing on either side of a canyon, with four years of mistakes and memories between us. One day it will be me searching for the words to describe how Dartmouth has made an impact on my life trajectory, but for now, I am listening and learning. 

Devyn Greenberg ’17 not only knows what she will be doing after graduation, she has a five year plan: Morocco next year as a Fulbright scholar, federal government consulting in Washington, D.C. for two years, Stanford Graduate School of Business for two years. David Klinges ’17 will be flying to Puerto Maldonado, Peru to work for the Alliance for a Sustainable Amazon as the organization’s resident naturalist, which involves surveying the surrounding jungle and working with local farmers, until his visa expires (about six months). Doug Phipps ’17’s duties as Dartmouth Outing Club First-Year Trips director keep him on campus until October. He intends to try to find a teaching job for the following fall, but in the meantime is traveling to Latin America to live on his own, strengthening his Spanish and making enough money to scrape by. 

These seniors’ plans have varying degrees of nebulousness, a discrepancy about which I questioned Phipps. Though he does recognize that his plan — or lack thereof — is rather unconventional, he is overall confident that it will work out in the end. 

“I am less nervous than I should be,” Phipps said. “I feel like I have a good rationale for everything that I’m doing, but it’s so off the beaten path … But all things considered, I’m very okay with it, and I’m very excited.” 

He feels that his ability to remain self-assured in the face of uncertainty is something that he gained at Dartmouth. 

“I feel very confident that whatever I do next, I’ll figure it out,” he said. “I don’t think I had that kind of confidence freshman year.”

His sophomore winter, Phipps travelled to a small coastal town in Ecuador to conduct research. As a self-described extrovert, Phipps said being in such an isolated location without a single person that could speak English was very challenging. 

“This was the first time I had to be with myself and figure out how to be okay with being by myself so much,” he explained. 

Through this experience, he found a new sense of independence and self. 

Klinges also described feeling more sure of himself as a result of his time at Dartmouth, something he attributes to Dartmouth’s open social environment and strong community. 

“A place like this, collectively, is very welcoming, and people value when you make apparent what you enjoy about yourself,” he said.  

According to Klinges, the strength of the Dartmouth community is evident in the way students come together during difficult times, in the lasting connection between the school and its alumni and in a “collective identity” unique to Dartmouth.

This shared identity seems paradoxical given Dartmouth’s geographic, ethnic, racial and socioeconomic diversity, a diversity to which Klinges partially credits his learned ability to appreciate difference. For Greenberg, additional lessons in empathizing with others could be found through the opportunities for travel available to Dartmouth students.

“Through the D-Plan and terms abroad, I’ve learned a lot of inter-cultural empathy, like connecting with people across different backgrounds,” she said. 

Klinges has also learned a lot about empathy and about interacting with others through his extracurricular activities. For example, as the chaplain of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, he is responsible for resolving conflicts within the house.

“[The role as chaplain] resulted in conversations that, initially for me, have been about trying to figure out how I can best understand others and put myself in their shoes, to empathize, in order to come to a common solution because empathy is the best way to problem solve,” he said. 

Phipps also stressed the importance of taking advantage of opportunities to learn and forge relationships outside of the classroom but urged current and future students to ignore any outside pressure and instead truly do things for themselves. 

“One of my biggest philosophies is that no one ever has to do anything,” he said. “You could not go to class and not take any of tests if you really want to, you just have to accept the consequences. Everything you do, you do it because you want to. With that mindset, I am excited to do everything that I am doing.”

He referenced a design-thinking workshop he attended in which the speaker asked the audience to consider how many different lives they would live if they could. With so many possible ways to live your life, the speaker explained, no matter what you do, you will only reach a fraction of your full potential. This revelation made Phipps realize the profound value of every moment. 

“If you have so many lives to live, you can’t possibly just sit around not doing anything,” he said. “You have to be doing things that you want to be doing.” 

Greenberg also stressed the importance of appreciating the present and spending your time wisely. 

“I love the Annie Dillard quote about how you live your days is how you live your life,” she said. “I’ve learned in my time here to value presence over productivity and to just feel the inherent value of every moment.”

Greenberg, who completely reworked her course schedule to add a human-centered design minor the fall of her senior year, does not believe in worrying about past mistakes or the potential of future failure and encouraged students to “lean into discomfort and embrace ambiguity.”

“Maybe there are things that I could have done differently… but I’ve learned to reframe those as lessons, or ways to build a way forward in the future,” she said.

Both Greenberg and Klinges acknowledged that not regretting passed-up opportunities can be difficult, especially considering the dizzying array of potential paths Dartmouth students can choose between. 

“You’re going to be provided with a multitude of options, there will be so many doors that you can take, and you’ll have to decide among those, so just relish the ones that you do end up opening rather than the ones you kept closed because you can’t change that,” Klinges said.

With so many avenues for exploration, it is easy to get lost, but Klinges expressed confidence in each student’s ability to find his or her calling. While he has known what he wants to do since high school, he recognizes that not everyone is so lucky. Certainly for Greenberg and Phipps, understanding their passions took a little longer. 

But, if I learned anything through my conversations with these three students, it was that uncertainty is okay. All three are confident that they are entering the dreaded “real world” with the academic and interpersonal skills necessary to succeed. More importantly, all three expressed a profound belief that anything is possible.

Greenberg urged students to “not be the person who limits your own potential. Believe in your own ability to achieve the vision you have if you work hard enough, if you stick to your values in the process.”

And only you can truly understand your values and your vision, as Phipps reminded me as his interview came to a close.

“My biggest piece of advice is always to not take too much advice,” he said. “A lot of people have this perception that other people have it figured out, and no one ever has it all figured out, even the people who seem like they do.”

So, regardless of which side of the canyon you stand on — whether your time at Dartmouth has just begun, is now ending, or ended long ago — and despite the pages of advice you just read — some of which you may find profound and some of which you may find nonsensical — know that the best life lessons are those you learn yourself.