Peters: Embracing Difference

by William Peters | 4/27/15 7:21pm

The past three years have seen a great deal of commotion concerning the nature of student life, particularly in regard to the role of Greek organizations and the issue of exclusivity. I cannot help but believe that a large portion of the grievances are borne from those who, for whatever reason, feel they have been shunned by those who are already members of certain groups. Feeling as though they do not and can not fit in at the College, some have taken to protests, demonstrations and making demands of administrators, such as those outlined in 2014’s “Freedom Budget.”

Yet, while their methods of spectacle were effective in garnering the attention of administrators and fellow students, I feel that they overlooked the value of a sense of “otherness.” While I cannot speak to the experiences of every student who feels different from his or her peers, I want to offer my perspective on how being different at Dartmouth can be a profound and positive experience.

When I arrived on campus, I was a 26-year-old veteran who had transferred from a community college and grew up in a low-income situation. Since the fall of 2012, I have certainly found my own form of community on various parts of campus. That is not to say, however, that I feel as though I have always “fit in” here. Students are usually very inquisitive and, on many occasions, socially tactless in their attempts to discover and understand new people — especially those who come from a background so unfamiliar to their own. I could have lashed out — and I did so on many occasions early on — but as time passed and I started to understand the nature of the students who attend Dartmouth, I began to learn how to be patient.

I began to realize that I have a very apparent sense of “otherness” to myself, and instead of trying to change it or replying with anger when people pry, I decided to embrace it. Every course, every house, every meal in the Class of 1953 Commons or Collis Cafe, I feel the eyes on my “otherness” — scanning my older face, the clothes I wear and the ink on my skin. I allowed this to bother me for a while, until I decided it was okay to say “this is me, and I am a student just like them.”

When I began to accept that people would look at me differently, I was able to focus on how to share my experiences with them in a constructive manner. Yes, I have been to war. Yes, I came from a junior college. No, my high school didn’t have graphing calculators. And no, I didn’t take the College Board SATs. When you own something that stands out from the majority of your peers, when you wear it proudly like armor, then no one can use it to hurt you.

Furthermore, you can share a story about your “otherness” that can contribute to a community in an invaluable way. I get the sense that the atypical, poor students who come to the College often find it difficult to find their footing on this campus. While the issues of exclusivity and misunderstanding need to be addressed, I want those students to know that they have something profound to offer the Dartmouth community. Those who come from modest places can inform their wealthier counterparts about the lower socioeconomic parts of society, circumstances many would otherwise never be familiar with.

No, I don’t always fit in. In fact, I rarely do. Yet standing out allows me to be exceptional. And if you’re at Dartmouth — particularly if you are from a non-traditional background — you are exceptional. So the next time you think you are being ostracized for being different, before you go start a protest in College President Phil Hanlon’s office, think about how you can make your peers see things differently. Maybe you can teach them something an Ivy League professor never could.