Cook: Take the Leap

Dartmouth must live up to its "adventuresome" reputation.

by Caroline Cook | 7/13/18 2:10am

The College seems to be in the middle of an identity crisis. Viewing itself as different from the way it is perceived by the outside world, determined to be more than just Dear Old Dartmouth and her loyal Wall Street sons, the College appears to be attempting to set the record straight. Dartmouth students, the College seems to be saying, are outdoorsy, and every Dartmouth experience starts with Dartmouth Outing Club First Year Trips. They’re well-read and philosophical; as true liberal arts students, studio art majors take engineering courses and engineers read Plato. They’re athletic powerhouses, vying for national championships left and right (hello, skiing!) and they’re creative types — did you know Mindy Kaling and Dr. Seuss went here?

Somewhere in the middle of juggling all of those identities, Dartmouth seems to have begun branding itself as possessing an unmatched “adventuresome spirit,” and while no one is going to argue that isn’t a lovely goal to set, the community does not back up that reputation. The word “adventuresome” really entails risks — healthy risks, branching out of one’s comfort zone for the express purpose that there is something worth knowing beyond it. An adventuresome spirit should mean moving in social circles that aren’t necessarily composed of people who look, talk, think and dress just like oneself. An adventuresome spirit should mean feeling engaged in politics, caring about this town and state and getting involved in discussions, even if one isn’t an expert on the topic. An adventuresome spirit should mean traveling — and that doesn’t have to mean to Vienna or Cape Town; it might mean to White River Junction. 

The adventures Dartmouth students like to take are canoeing down the Connecticut River or wearing pajamas to Class of 1953 Commons because they’re quirky. While this willingness to embrace smaller adventures is a helpful perspective to adopt, especially in college, it is not going far enough to have really earned the College’s self-imposed reputation. 

Dartmouth should strive for an adventuresome spirit — and if the community isn’t living up to its words right now, the solution is not to rebrand. While mandating that study abroad terms be required for graduation would force students to quickly find a way to embrace adventure, that would ignore the fact that adventure doesn’t look the same for everyone. But it probably should be something besides a student and 12 friends having a wild time at Green Key. That’s all well and good, but it’s not an adventure. 

If a policy change from the administration won’t be enough to live up to the ambitious image the College paints of itself, it is up to the students to set the tone for their peers. The expectation should be engagement, participation in and responsibility for the community — and in doing so, the adventuresome spirit will be alive and well in cross-cultural interaction, healthy intellectual debate and yes, perhaps trying a new outdoor pastime. If the wise and weathered upperclassmen tell incoming students on Trips and at orientation that the expectation will be for them to try something truly different and to continue to challenge themselves in every aspect of their lives, the problem would fix itself within a few years. Peer pressure is immensely powerful, and it can be a force for good if students decide to hold each other accountable as citizens of their community. 

I know plenty of people who are infected by this adventuresome spirit, in at least some aspects of their lives. Perhaps they decided to take a language they have no background in, fell in love and are going to major in it. Perhaps that will take them on a study abroad trip and lead them down a potential career path in that country. The point is to let adventure guide us; that goal is at the root of the liberal arts model Dartmouth prides itself on. And sure, some of those adventuresome students have friends from the same town or even the same high school, and perhaps they all wear the same shoes or carry the same bag. No one can view every aspect of their life through an adventuresome lens. Comfort zones exist for a reason, and everyone wants to be comfortable, at least at some point in their day. My argument is not anti-comfort but rather pro-adventure; it feels like Dartmouth students have a responsibility to try new and meaningful things, since they’re in a place that’s full of them. I would love for this community to truly earn an “adventuresome spirit” as one of the pillars it may showcase to potential students. 

As terrifying as it is to commit to fully embracing adventure, it’s not a leap without a safety net — all adventures taken at Dartmouth still occur within this protected bubble. So, take a leap, talk to that person you know you’ll disagree with, apply to that Foreign Study Program, and, if you must, wear those pajamas to ’53 Commons.