Through the Looking Glass: How to Stumble with Grace
To be honest, I thought I had it all figured it out. Being dropped off by my parents in the middle of New Hampshire was definitely nerve-wracking, but every one was in the same boat, right? I had a plan, and it was simple — school, friends, sleep and repeat. That was definitely doable. But I write this from a place of preciously secured wisdom that has been bestowed upon me as a member of the next graduating class. From this vantage point, I see how completely out-of-touch this so-called plan actually was. It did not factor in any kind of living — and by living I mean the sometimes dirty, messy, beautiful, ridiculous life events that occur without warning. At the time, the plan was all I had. I thought college was a neat little formula I could plug myself into and complete within the allotted four years. That first day I was excited about who I was, and I knew exactly where I was going. I saw four years ahead of me, four years and the opportunity to make of them whatever I decided.
So I went on from that first day, and I decided some of these four years. Some aspects of my time here, though, I very much stumbled upon, and others I blatantly just crashed into. Example — my first exam in a Dartmouth course went so poorly that it was literally off the curve. Not only had this had never happened to me before, it had probably never happened to any of my peers either. It was impossible for me to believe. Classes were difficult and required real, committed work — and that work did not stop in the classroom. There were extracurriculars, volunteering, research, social obligations, meals to be had and even the need to get the occasional full night’s sleep. It was exhausting. The strange part was that everyone else seemed to be doing it so effortlessly — I could not understand what I was doing wrong.
In my experience, there is something about being in New Hampshire, tucked into the Upper Valley in the town of Hanover that produces an idyllic glaze. As my freshman year went on, I realized that there was an interesting dichotomy between the charm of small town college life and my reality as a Dartmouth student. There were things people did not discuss, like the reason some choose to drink to the point of oblivion or engage in whatever harmful activity was considered the norm. Who creates these unachievable norms of perfection that we all seem to strive for? I realized most people were not simply coasting through their time here in an effortless glide, and even more alarming, an increasingly large amount of people seemed to be struggling. Not just struggling academically, but socially as well, trying to answer huge questions like who they were and what that meant in the scheme of this place — and the world. The stress of it all was debilitating.
Personally, during the spring term of 2015, I felt like I was drowning most of the time. After having spent the two previous terms away from Hanover, I was eager to return to a campus that I considered my second home. In those terms away, in the so-called “real world,” I had challenged myself and succeeded. I felt empowered and in control of my path. Yet, somehow, within weeks of returning, I was reduced to feeling small and powerless. Everything seemed to be tumbling out of control and there were times where I had no idea where to even begin with fixing what seemed to be falling apart. My anxiety was the highest it had ever been. I seemed to be unable to go more than a week without crying over something. The worst was trying to hide these feelings, particularly because most people who know me as such an upbeat person. It got better when I started reaching out to people for help. When I allowed myself to vulnerable, as terrifying as it was at the time, I actually found support, comfort and love from the people around me.
I have come to realize that this network of support is how we should deal with all the messy things about life that get in the way of our so-called pre-planned and outlined college experiences. The superficiality of “being fine” is a phenomenon that does nothing but serve as an impetus for harmful norms and behaviors. I have learned to speak to others, to really discuss what excites me and what frightens me. I have realized my anxieties, though a quirk, make up who I am and what I strive to be. A brilliant professor of mine frequently comments that we all have a thing — a thing that seems a little odd to others. I think college is identifying that thing and working with it. As a freshman, I had read the blogs and books, but what I did not know was that college was supposed to teach about the actual world — things you do not necessarily learn and cannot necessarily learn in a classroom. The greatest lesson has been how to stumble, how to fall, with elegance and grace and even courage. It is the knowledge that everyone falls. That everyone has a thing that makes that feel a little out of control. That it is okay to feel that way at times. Things are difficult because they matter. Most importantly, I have learned that all we have is one another.