The Heart of Dartmouth

by Brad Russo | 6/10/01 5:00am

Commencement and Reunion is another of those great Dartmouth weekends.

People don't talk as much about this weekend as Homecoming or Winter Carnival, perhaps because it's so bittersweet, but C&R defines what is truly amazing about Dartmouth. Seniors who can't believe it's been four years since they first arrived in Hanover and alumni who can't believe it's been 5, 10, 50 years since they left all come together and celebrate just how special this college is.

We talk about our classes, our professors, our houses and organizations, our roommates and our parties. We talk about our adventures, our learning experiences and our defeats. We talk about how this college has given us so much and how we are so thankful for it.

And all this is true -- but I think our modesty is obscuring the real source of Dartmouth's greatness. The heart of the matter is that everyone here has made this place so special by being uniquely enthusiastic, and this weekend is only one shining example of that.

I always thought I would find it hard to leave Dartmouth, and I'm sure I will. But unlike other schools in other places with other students, the Dartmouth experience is not a four-year stint. It is a lifelong marriage that only grows stronger with time. Like any good union, we did not pick this one indiscriminately. People don't select a husband or wife because they're average, acceptable or mediocre. Spouses are chosen because they are special and extraordinary, and so too is Dartmouth.

That feeling is obvious right from the start. DOC trips are not the normal way to begin college, whether you're in Ithaca, Palo Alto or anywhere in between. And it's obvious at the end as distinguished speakers come from all over the world to stand in front of a large tree stump lectern. (I can't quite picture the "Ve Ri Tas" shield shining out from our pine bark.)

Being excellent means knowing your strengths and playing to them. It means knowing your uniqueness and embracing it. It means not being afraid to do things differently if you think they are the right thing to do. And it means being proud of what sets you apart.

Dartmouth students present and past live up to this collective challenge. We know our school is special because of how it treats undergraduates, how it inspires excitement and devotion and how it nurtures the whole body and mind.

I believe Dartmouth leaders know this too. But sometimes they get caught up in emulation, imitation and other signs of a feeling of inferiority. And for all the talk of diversity, it seems they sometimes want all of higher education, or at least the Ivy League, to be in perfect conformity (which most often means that we scamper to follow others' paths).

Students and alumni have the power and the obligation to remind those in immediate charge of what brought us all here in the first place and what keeps us coming back. You can get a good education in a great number of places. You can only get a Dartmouth education -- a complete Dartmouth experience -- in one.

When you're the upstart, the darkhorse or your sector's lagging performer, maybe it's appropriate to try to be like the big guys. Maybe it's right to mold every action by what someone else has done before. You'll most surely do this if you think you need to play catch-up. But Dartmouth is not in this position and sometimes needs to stop thinking that it is. We needn't be embarrassed or apologize. We need to lead, as we have throughout our history.

From a continued focus on teaching to the D-plan, Dartmouth has confronted problems by forging its own path. Sometimes others follow (as with the computing revolution) and sometimes they don't (how many times have you explained about Sophomore Summer?), but we use what works for us -- not what works for everyone else.

Just as life wouldn't be very pleasant with only one type of person, one job for everybody or one brand of breakfast cereal, the collegiate experience wouldn't be as good if there were only type of college. Dartmouth is not for everybody. Neither is Brown or Smith or Middlebury or Princeton. The wonderful thing is that we get to select from this great variety the type of place we want to live for four years and love for many more.

Like all marriages, this one is about trust. Dartmouth must trust us as students to demonstrate the proper spirit, and alumni must trust the College to carry on, true to the mission they invested in many years ago. Students must love to learn, must love to live and must act as the adults they are. Dartmouth must not forget its founding principles or why so many alums not only made it their college of choice but continue to hold it in such high esteem.

Marriage is also about reciprocation. Students and alumni must make the College proud through their accomplishments and through the way they act. Dartmouth should make us proud by continuing to hold dear its unique and magnetic aspects -- teaching, diversity of thought and experience, a well-rounded education, the focus on the undergraduate and the respect of its students. Above all, Dartmouth must continue to lead. It must continue to be independent. It must continue to shape its future not by looking at others but by looking at itself and at those of us who love it. For the marriage to continue as it has for over 200 years, both the College and those of us that make it up must uphold our ends of the bargain. Only then will the bliss continue and increase for many generations to come.