Li Shen: Ten Percent of Ten Percent

Transitioning to Dartmouth is a challenge we should not be afraid of. ​

by Sabrina Li Shen | 11/3/17 12:30am

Logically, I am aware that Orientation only lasted seven days. Realistically, it felt like seven years. By the end of it, the word “transition” did not seem like a real word anymore, and I had perfected the reflex of telling people my name, hometown and intended major. Though most of Orientation felt like a repetition of information, there was one moment that stood out with unfortunate clarity: When the coordinators asked how many of us had graduated in the top 10 percent of our high school class, we saw that most of us had been in that percentile. The gravity of that exercise didn’t hit me until a few minutes later: If so many of us had been in the top 10 percent of our high schools, obviously we couldn’t all be in the top 10 percent at Dartmouth. Of course, I promptly dismissed that realization and reasoned that I could cruise on smoothly as always, because school was something that I’d always known how to do.

What they do not tell you is that the top 10 percent is not just about school; it’s about athletics, extracurriculars, the drive to succeed and even personality. I thought high school had prepared me to compete with the best of them, but as soon as classes and clubs began, I found myself at a loss for the first time in a very long time. Participating in class felt like navigating a minefield of people who possessed encyclopedic knowledge of the course content, knew the professor better and could debate me into the ground. Trying out for performance groups felt like the backstage of an “America’s Got Talent” episode. Every “get-to-know-you” conversation culminated in some casual reference to a research breakthrough, business venture or internship. For many weeks, I fell into a slump of silence, inactivity and insecurity. I slept all the time and missed a few classes here and there, unable to rouse myself out of bed for another day of watching other people live their best lives. Coming off the high of senior year at my small, East coast preparatory school then diving into the reality of college, where my name is one out of thousands, I was floundering as a small fish in a big ocean. However, it also served as a welcome kick in the rear for me to get over myself.

It is now week eight of my freshman fall, and I have come to the realization that I’m not that great. There is no dearth of any admirable quality in the people at Dartmouth. But if I am here, there must be something redeemable in me as well. I have not done life-saving charity work in Tunisia, created my own company or worked for a senator’s re-election campaign — but I can start now. There are people here who are smarter, funnier and more talented than I am, but being around them is already forcing me to study harder and practice more (though the “funnier” thing is a lost cause).

If we all arrived here as top 10-percenters, then the top 10 percent of Dartmouth must be a concentration of 10 percent of the 10 percent. Though gaining entrance into that top rank is still a daunting task, the sheer math of it no longer scares me. I am here to be challenged and I am here to get knocked flat on my face; I am also here to bounce right back and go for another round. My fellow wide-eyed, uncertain ’21s are in my corner, along with plenty of upperclassmen who have been right where I am. The professors are learning my name, I am writing for this newspaper and next term, I’ll even be able to get off the 20-meal plan. So yes, I’ve realized I’m not that great … but I’m getting there.