TTLG: Fifteen Lessons From a Fifth-year '15

by Alexander Lopez | 9/17/15 8:02pm


Alexander Lopez ‘15 took an unconventional path before his fifth year and shares his tips.

by Kate Herrington and Kate Herrington / The Dartmouth

When my parents first dropped me off on the front lawn of the Dartmouth Outing Club House around this time four years ago, my mother’s parting words proved to become a molding life mantra that would follow me throughout my travels and my time here. Before our final goodbye, I’ll never forget, Mama Lopez looked me dead in the eyes and said plainly — “Don’t worry honey. Just be yourself. Breathe. Have fun. It’s all going to be okay.”

Now, looking back over my four years in Hanover, I’ve learned that life is truly never what you expect. It’s a combination of what you create and blind chance. Dartmouth was not what I expected at all.

I spent my four years living on four continents, taking temporary residence among 27 cities. I worked dozens of jobs and internships, fell in love, had my heart broken, pulled approximately 36 all-nighters (not recommended), failed tests, aced tests, dropped classes, attempted four-course terms, joined clubs, quit clubs, danced at formal, cried on the coach ride home and, as cheeky as it sounds, made memories I’ll never forget.

Dartmouth has been a whirlwind of emotion, energy and adventure, and I am grateful for every moment of my time here and abroad. From Wall Street to working at FoCo, the United Nations in Italy to sewing tomatoes in the costume shop with Carla for the fall play.

From Italian class with Professoressa Anna Minardi to studying bonobos with anthropology professor Kes Schroer, Chinese lessons with Mao Laoshi to the African Literary Masterpieces course with comparative literature professor Ayo Coly. My time and experiences here have been as varied, beautiful, surreal and eclectic as I could’ve ever hoped to have from a liberal arts education.

In my travels, I’ve met and made friends with all kinds of people, I’ve asked them endless questions about their complex lives and lived experiences, and I have learned the parts of their story they were willing to share. I’ve seen people obsessed with money and power and greed and impressing others, and I’ve met people dedicated to kindness and equality, democracy and change.

My point is, for a young person, I’ve seen and experienced some crazy things, largely because I had the immense privilege of attending a university that allowed me to pursue my interests, passions and wanderlust, free of judgement and regardless of my own personal lack of funding, clout or connections.

My hope with this piece is to share a handful of the lessons I’ve learned these past four years. I hope to show you that it’s okay to fail, and that a successful, happy life is demarcated by your resilience and your daily attitude, not the turbulence and setbacks you may face along the way.

I still have a lot to learn, I’ve been around the world and I still can’t answer a simple question — how do I want to live my one and only life? I can’t tell you how to live, either. What I can do is share some stories and tell you what I’ve learned.

With that, here are my 15 life lessons from a fifth-year ’15.

1. Go where the happy people are

The first time I stood in Baker Tower was during the unforgiving heat wave of 2010. My tour guide, Danielle, was a funny, charming and ambitious senior with flowing brown hair and an infectious smile.

For me, she represented the students genuinely excited to be here. I wanted to grow and find myself during my college years amongst inspiring and joyful people like Danielle. She was — and is — the reason I love Dartmouth so much.

2. It is O.K. if you do not fit in.

I was so overwhelmed in my first year — the excessive wealth, the endless opportunities. I felt like everyone was smarter, more cultured, more educated and more interesting than I could ever be.

I learned simply to silence my inner critic, love myself for the quirky, relentlessly positive person I am and to work hard to embrace my life as it is, not as I felt it should be.

3. Don’t give into FOMO.

You simply cannot do it all. Instead, I would encourage you to take care of yourself and your body first (healthy eating, sleeping and exercise), your obligations second (your commitments, your jobs on campus, your homework and your studies) and your dreams and ambitions third (what stirs your soul and makes you excited to get out of bed each morning).

4. Don’t over-schedule your life away.

Being present is better than being busy. I tried to join and be and do everything my freshman fall, and I inevitably failed. I learned that it is much more valuable to fully devote yourself to one or two things and be the best and most reliable person you can be for those organizations instead of being a flaky half-participant in 15+ clubs and organizations. Go at your own pace and you’ll be much happier. It’s just true.

5. Don’t be afraid to do something totally different.

When I told my friends I’d accepted an internship on Wall Street, they were totally surprised. For me, it was an industry I’d never work in, a chance to make money and pay off debt, put my economics classes into practice, make new friends and see the golden city of New York up close and personal.

In the end Wall Street wasn’t for me, but I have many friends who excel and thrive in the finance world. I’m so glad I tried it out, and I am so happy for my friends who love it. It’s all about finding where you’re happiest, most productive and fulfilled.

6. Never turn down a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with your best friend.

The winter of my junior year I spent 10 blissful weeks with my best friend Anna studying Hinduism, Hindi and Bollywood film in Hyderabad, India. We climbed the Golconda Fort and toured the Qutb Shahi tombs. We went to the Ajanta and Ellora caves, and I almost got my phone stolen by a tiny little monkey and his friends.

I spent time on the Ganges River riding the historic ghats and watching the ceremonial burning of the bodies, eating delicious food in Varanasi, meditating under the Bodhi Tree with a monk from Atlanta, curling up a few thousand feet above sea level in the ice cold hills of Darjeeling and seeing first-hand the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center where refugees can live peacefully among the clouds.

Adventure is sometimes only a funding application, an open mind and an adventurous spirit away. Dartmouth will help you see and learn about the world. All you have to do is apply.

7. It is okay to take time off.

The winter of my sophomore year I had fallen sick. I had to withdraw from the term and complete my coursework at home. I felt cheap, like a failure. I would later find out that it’s totally normal to take medical leave or an incomplete.

In the end, I’ve learned that there is no shame in healing. There is no shame in taking time off.

8. Don’t ignore your passions until it’s too late.

I met the famed Italian film director Emanuele Crialese at an event with the Italian department. Like a total newb, I gave him a copy of a book that is important to me and told him how much his films have impacted my life. I asked him, point-blank, “Was there ever a time when your parents disapproved of your life path? The reason I ask is because I want to be a writer but my parents want me to do something practical.” Do you want to know what he said?

He said, “You’re never going to impress your parents, so why don’t you try impressing yourself?”

9. There are resources on campus to help you pursue your dreams.

Go try out everything you’re interested in on your off terms. Utilize organizations like the Dickey Center, the Tucker Foundation, the Rockefeller Center and the alumni network to search for career paths, job opportunities, internships and foreign study programs that fit your unique interests. At the very least find out what you don’t want to do and where and who you don’t want to be.

10. Have the audacity to believe in yourself.

You will never achieve anything in this life if you tell yourself you can’t, that you’re not good enough or smart enough.

You have to, have to, have to silence your inner defeatist and have the audacity to dream. The audacity to believe in yourself. I really believe with hard work, confidence and a little luck that the universe gives you what you ask of it.

11. Beware of extremes.

You are going to face lots of pressure here. Pressure to drink. Pressure to do drugs. Pressure to have sex, study 24/7, get perfect grades, always be happy — ALWAYS be happy.

You and you alone get to decide how you spend your time here. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Don’t be afraid to deviate from the norm. Carve your own path and always remember — if you’re hurting, seek help. If you’re happy, lift others up. It’s as simple at that.

12. Don’t let failure define you.

If you’re coming to Dartmouth, chances are failure is not something you’re used to. I know I wasn’t.

I’ve learned that withdrawing from a course or seeking out tutors is nothing to be ashamed of. Go at your own pace and love yourself enough to forgive yourself when you mess up and keep working harder toward your goals.

13. Try new things whenever possible.

Truly, I got very lucky. The first day of pre-Orientation, my mom called me and said, “You should apply to Great Issues Scholars, it’s perfect for you!”

In the years since, the Dickey Center has truly become my home base on campus. I’ve met some of the kindest and hardest working people I’ve ever known during my time working with the center, and I’ve even had the opportunity to study and work abroad in South Africa and Italy because of the center’s continued support, guidance and funding.

I would not be where I am today without Dickey’s commitment to enriching the lives of students.

14. Spend time daily on reflection.

Freshman year, I spent my fall in the River Cluster making best friends with some pretty amazing kids. I learned to ballroom dance in the fall, took Public Policy 5 in the winter, went to formals and shows and acted in the school play. I costume dressed for “Hairspray,” I sang endlessly, I laughed and I never slept.

Sometimes, in the mornings I sit and relive old conversations with my hall-mate and dear friend Liz, old heart to hearts with Nicole and old adventures with Willi. Don’t let Dartmouth (or life) pass you by in a blur.

Be present, reflect, reminisce.

15. Live well.

We all find our passions at different times in our lives. Focus on feeding your mind, your body and your soul every day.

This is a new start, a fresh start, for you to be unstoppable, to be a leader and to make Dartmouth the beginning of the best years of your life.

And finally, I offer you this — do not rush through your time here. Do not D-plan your life away. Look up. Breathe. Be present. Don’t be flaky. Go to class. Take it all in. This is your time. Breathe this rare air. You are loved.

Everything is going to be okay.

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