Huebner: Academically Directionless?

by Julia Huebner | 8/13/17 9:00pm

This article was featured in the 2017 Freshman Issue.

The summer before my freshman year, I would waltz around my neighborhood in a Dartmouth t-shirt and Lone Pine baseball cap, telling family friends I was “just thrilled to go to Dartmouth in the fall!” and “planning on majoring in communications or journalism, because they’re my passions.” As it turns out, Dartmouth doesn’t have a communications department. Or a journalism department. That summer I toyed with the idea that I may have chosen incorrectly. What if I was heading to the wrong school in the fall?

A weeks before First-Year Trips, I met an alumna whose one piece of advice was to take Engineering 12, “Design Thinking,” which was her favorite class at Dartmouth. An engineering class? I laughed. Engineering was the one thing I wouldn’t do in college. Right?

Wrong. I took her advice and when I walked into the Thayer School of Engineering for the first day of class, I was the only freshman in a room full of cool, collected and attractive upperclassmen. Just my luck.

It was exactly that: luck. Luck led me to stay up until 10 p.m. in Thayer, building a Foamcore rollercoaster. Luck introduced me to my then-editor of the opinion section at The Dartmouth. Luck helped me find that senior who told me to take “Introduction to Computer Science.” Luck helped me discover a love for problem solving and the methodology of human centered design.

The madness of random course exploration continued: first a comparative literature class, then a computer science class, then an environmental studies class. Nordic skiing, philosophy and an interdisciplinary Impact Design class followed. Freshman year was like a fancy cheese cart or upscale dessert platter of liberal arts classes.

By the time I had finished my first three quarters at Dartmouth, I had taken 10 classes in 10 different departments — most were due to suggestions from upperclassmen. I hope that the end of freshman year won’t mark the end of my academic exploration: economics, geography and history are still on the docket for sophomore year. My answer to “what’s your major?” changes with the weather.

I write this with both great excitement and lingering apprehension. My friends, many of whom are planning to apply for medical school, seem to have their academic trajectory set in stone. While they may worry about satisfying all of the College’s distributive requirements, I wonder about the possibility (or impossibility) of deciding on an academic path. What if I graduate without being able to answer: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A mentor once told me that the answer to that question should be “happy, healthy and productive in whatever I’m doing.” A more detailed answer, she said, is just speculation. That doesn’t mean that I’m aimless or purposeless. And that definitely doesn’t mean that I’m good at everything I try (far from it).

You’ve probably heard that freshman year is the time to try new things. That’s true, and it’s the crux of this liberal arts institution. What people don’t tell you is that trying new things can make your stomach churn. It is daunting to be in a class where you know you’re not the smartest person. It hurt when I failed my first computer science exam. It was hard to call home and tell my mom that her Ivy League daughter had failed a test.

But every class I took was worth it. I believe that Dartmouth, during the course of my freshman year, not only taught me how to think more critically, but also more fairly. It’s easier now to switch between academic perspectives, between methodologies and ideologies, than ever before. That’s the secret sauce of the liberal arts.

The academic pressure of exams, grade point averages and parents asking about school will always exist. The bigger problem is the subtle pressure to “be successful,” which seems to mean having an elevator pitch and an impressive resume. Your friends of debauchery and wild nights will also have curated LinkedIn profiles and email signatures. It’s the strange reality of being a Dartmouth student.

Here’s the catch: as a freshman, the pre-professionalism of resume workshops, name-dropped investment banks and incessant LinkedIn requests are pure branding.

I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to have it figured out. You don’t need to be a doctor, lawyer or banker. You don’t need to have your classes picked out for all of freshman year. You don’t need to shy away from being — that dreaded word — Undeclared. What you do need are good friends and better professors: friends who will pick up the phone in the middle of the night and professors who you revere lie a cool uncle or aunt.

I advise you to treat your tenure at Dartmouth like a road trip: you’ll want a map and an idea of where you’re going, but you will eventually take unplanned roads and make unintended stops. Don’t just allow it to happen; celebrate it.

I hope that you finish your freshman year feeling more confused than when you started.