Leaving Dartmouth

by Omer Ismail | 6/9/02 5:00am

Growing up in Pakistan, I dreamt of attending Harvard. It was the only American university I had ever heard of. Over the next few years, my dream became an obsession. I saw Crimson everywhere. It wasn't meant to be, however, and senior year of high school Harvard sent me the all-too-familiar thin letter. I was good but not good enough, the letter said. Shattered at first, I began to swallow my disappointment and settle for my second choice. And on September 9, 1998, I found myself standing outside the Hanover Inn, staring at some crazy kids dancing in front of Robinson Hall as my bus pulled away. I was destined to spend four years at a college about which I knew little except that it was a member of the Ivy League, it was located in New Hampshire, and the winters were 100 degrees colder than in Karachi.

Four years later, I look out the window from The D's office on the second floor of Robinson Hall and can't find the appropriate words to articulate how grateful I am for my college experience. Clichs like "the Dartmouth family" and "Hanover's close-knit community," which seemed like admissions office's catchphrases four years ago, hold such dear meaning today. Where else does the university president's wife invite random freshmen to her house to discuss her passion for the institution? Where else can a college newspaper editor dare to call the university president at home at 2 a.m. to interview him for an important story? And where else do members of a college community console one another as we did after two of our professors were brutally murdered?

The brilliance of my Dartmouth experience, however, is epitomized by the way this institution has tested me every step of the way -- confronting my values and beliefs and teaching me always to question the status quo. In and out of the classroom, this college has made me challenge the assumptions I hold about the institutions that I love and about the world in which I live. I have seen a professor weep, while interviewing her two days after Susanne Zantop was murdered. I have spent hours explaining Islam's peaceful philosophy to dear friends, whom I was shocked to learn knew almost nothing about my religion. Indeed, Dartmouth has pushed me -- and out of these experiences, a better informed and more confident individual has emerged.

This institution has challenged me even more profoundly because I am an international student and a student of color. Dartmouth, at the very outset, compelled me to make a hard choice: I could either suppress my individuality and blend into the dominant social establishment on campus, or I could maintain my identity and not fit in completely. I'm not the only one who has had to make this choice. I wavered and reluctantly chose the latter. The social limitations that I have experienced here have been compounded by my religious decision not to drink. It amazes me that while my Dartmouth education has enabled me to question so many things I am passionate about, Dartmouth College itself has failed to confront many of its own inadequacies.

Our class has lived through three and a half years of the social and residential life initiative, which promised to revolutionize the out-of-classroom experience. I realize that some changes, like the building of new residence halls, take time. However, in so many other areas, I have been frustrated by the lack of substantive change or at best its sluggish pace. Despite committee after committee and report after report, hazing and alcohol abuse continue to be a significant problem on campus, and students of color and many women continue to feel marginalized from the mainstream social options on campus.

At his inauguration and our class' matriculation four years ago, current Dartmouth College President James Wright told us, "I expect to pursue my vision of Dartmouth energetically and to use the persuasive powers of this office to strengthen further this great institution." I have immense respect for President Wright and am confident that this rightly remains the driving force behind the work of his administration. However, perhaps in an attempt to keep everyone satisfied, his administration has failed to take some necessary bold steps to eradicate many of these problems.

President Wright, Dartmouth has taught me that the status quo is never unquestionable, not even for Dartmouth. You must use the power of your office to confront the failings of this college directly. Bold actions may anger some; reactionaries will always oppose lasting change. My vision for Dartmouth is a college where athletes do not humiliate new team members. A college where women are treated with respect in fraternity basements. A college where students of color can maintain their identities and feel comfortable in all parts of the campus -- and so many of us leaving here today have not.

I spent hours thinking about this last piece for The Dartmouth -- my first opportunity to write personally about the College. As a news writer for the paper for the last three and a half years, striving for objectivity, I have shied away from expressing my own views about Dartmouth and struggled not to let my personal opinions affect my editorial judgments. In preparing for this piece, I read many of the columns written by my predecessors in their Commencement issues. I read about their passion for Dartmouth as they reflected on the simple memories -- the late night talks with friends, the hikes up Mount Cardigan, the 4 a.m. trips to Fort Lou's, the freshman-year snowball fights, the all night paper-writing sessions. I feel exactly the same way.

I still remember former dean of first-year students Peter Goldsmith speaking at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge at the end of my freshman outing club trip, "You are no doubt excited and eager today, but if after four years at Dartmouth, you leave skeptical, then we have done our job."

Dartmouth has done its job. I am leaving skeptical -- skeptical about Pakistan and India's ability ever to make peace with one another, skeptical about whether I will be able to resist the temptation of making my millions in this country and never returning to Pakistan, skeptical about how long it will take Muslims in America to feel comfortable again, and skeptical about this college's ability to challenge the status quo. But more than that, I leave grateful. I will miss this place, my first home in the United States. I leave it grateful to my family for sending me here and for all they have done for me. And I leave it grateful to God for making sure I didn't get admitted to Harvard.

Omer Ismail is president emeritus of The Dartmouth.