Defining My Dartmouth

by Caela Murphy | 5/28/15 7:39pm

A few weeks ago, in one of my few forays into the wilderness since my Hiking 1 trip freshman year, I spent the night with a group of friends at the Class of 1966 Lodge, also known as Harris Cabin. As we laughed through rounds of Taboo and “yum-yummed” the remainder of what must have been an industrial-sized block of Cabot cheese, the daylight receded, bringing with it the serene darkness and the distant, unknown living sounds characteristic of a forest at night. We staked out our sleeping locations, a few others and I opting for the cool air of the balcony overlooking the clearing.

Laying out there after everyone had fallen asleep and looking up at the stars that are only visible in the depths of nature, (and which, consequently, I’ve rarely seen), I did what any self-respecting liberal arts student would do — I searched for meaning. Certain pithy, sentimental ideas came to mind: that although I’d be leaving Dartmouth in a month, I would have the memory of this night forever; that countless other Dartmouth students before me had slept in that place and looked up at the same stars, and countless others would follow; that I had come full circle and emerged a more complete person since staying at the same cabin four years earlier during my First-Year Trip.

Needless to say, these weren’t earth-shattering observations, and in their totalizing and clichéd character, they rang insincere. I was stretching to construct a summative meaning for the night when, in reality, its significance was more nebulous, harder to define. Listening in the dark to the babbling of the nearby stream mingling with the calm, even breaths of the people that had become so central to my life here huddled around me, I knew the evening had been a special one, but my varied attempts to derive an essential meaning out of it proved, time and again, reductive.

For this reason, I initially dreaded the thought of writing this column.

As a humanities student, I’ve spent most of my Dartmouth career piecing together narratives, be they long research papers or short responses. I’ve become comfortable pulling together information to present a succinct argument, complete with supporting evidence and a clear thesis. It’s a process that I’ve come to enjoy in my time as a student, and probably one of the main things that drew me to writing, and later editing, for The Dartmouth. I appreciated the structure that lent the stories shape — an engaging lede, followed by the most pertinent information and then details and sources that brought that information to life. I loved sorting through facts and events to arrive at a central significance, the beauty of a story well-told.

And like most of us who have been through the wringer of applying for post-graduate careers, internships, fellowships and more, I’ve gotten better at summarizing. In carefully crafted resumes and cover letters, I’ve attempted to tell the story of my academic and professional life as an aspiring entry-level employee — a narrative of obstacles overcome, personal growth attained and future challenges eagerly anticipated, with a protagonist who’s like its author except infinitely more self-assured.

But defining myself — or, more specifically, my Dartmouth experience — has never come easy to me. That’s not to say that this place hasn’t had a meaningful impact on me. Indeed, the past four years have without question been the most impactful of my life, defining me in ways I hadn’t expected and, often, in ways I didn’t realize I needed. In separating me from some of my closest friends during multiple terms, the D-Plan did exactly what I feared it would and exactly what I needed, keeping me from complacency and forcing me to constantly seek out and cultivate new relationships. Attending the school that one parent and two (now three) brothers had attended before me and being confronted with the eerie similarities between our Dartmouth experiences (yes, we all worked at the circulation desk) drove me to continuously pursue new trajectories in an attempt to lay claim to my own territory here. The past four years have been a process of flux for me, perhaps most definable in their resistance to definition. And though I’ve grown through that instability, it’s made it difficult to locate the crux of my Dartmouth experience or to find a steady framework through which to articulate it.

When I sat down to write this column, I was met with the realization that I’ve been subconsciously formulating the thesis statement to my college career for the past four years and with the anxiety that four years later I’m still searching for one. It’s a bit like the innumerable moments when, walking across the Green on a winter’s night, I’ve stopped to take a picture of Baker Tower in the purplish afterglow of a snowfall and found, of course, that my phone could not come close to capturing it. Try as I might to articulate my time here — to turn four years of searching for home in new areas of campus, of agonizing over failures to balance obligations to different people and of sensing friendships mature over 2 a.m. cheese fries into a cohesive story — the thread never holds. The theme, ever elusive, escapes me.

But ultimately, I’m realizing that I’m content without definition. Being unable to put into words what the College has meant for me is scary, but so too is the thought that my time here can be summarized by a central theme or two and a few key lessons that I’ve learned in the past four years. The story hasn’t ended yet, and even after graduation a few weeks from now, I know that my Dartmouth experience will continue to shape me in different ways, variably defining me while I continue to reflect on it in new lights.

That night at Harris Cabin, I failed pretty miserably in my attempts to construe the meaning of the moment. Taking it for what it was, however, I think I’ve come a bit closer to understanding, in the simplest terms, what Dartmouth has been for me — a beautiful place in the middle of the woods encompassing people who have loved, challenged and changed me, and to whom I’ve gradually become more willing to offer myself in return. It’s a story without a driving conflict, without an arc, without resolution. It’s a narrative I’m still writing, and one I’m nowhere close to completing. I’m in no rush to finish it.