TTLG: Self-Identification

by Aniksha Balamurugan | 4/5/16 5:22pm

As an Indian-American woman with immigrant parents, I was both shocked and yet not at all surprised to have found greater diversity at Dartmouth. Granted, the Long Island town from which I hail served as a skewed baseline and left me deeply confused about my identity (or as my grandmother likes to call me an ABCD — American Born Confused Desi). I ate my idly and sambar out of tupperware amongst the PB&Js, and I could never really empathize with girls in the summer complaining about their peeling sunburns. Physically and culturally, I stood out. The problem was, I never had a penchant for the limelight. I still don’t. I don’t sit in the back of class because I hate engaging in the classroom: I do it because sitting in the front makes me feel as though all my classmates are watching my every move — what I write down, how many times I touch my hair and whether I’ll have any nail left to gnaw on before class ends. The point is, I hated standing out. I yearned to fit in, and more so to blend in.

I saw college as a fresh start, a chance to figure myself out but also learn from my high school experience and fit in from the get go. I actively tried to fit in from the beginning, and went along with the strange cultish culture that our campus both scorns and adores all at once. I realized that participating in traditions was a means to an end for me to find things in common with my peers, to become a regular Dartmouth student. One of these “traditions,” whether we like to think of it as one or not, was rush. I longed to shed my freshman status simply to drape myself in one of those velvety Greek letter crewnecks. After all, what better way to fit in than to be one of the 60 percent of the student population that is affiliated, right?

Rush came and went, and I found myself lucky to have had a positive experience. I hadn’t ended up with my first choice, but I was among a class of women whom I would come to admire and love, who would challenge me in all the best ways. The fall of 2013 was an exciting term for me; I was ready to finally feel like I had an identity I could sink my teeth into. I was ready for my house to fill a void.

But it never did. The feeling never came. Sophomore fall, sophomore spring (after I was abroad in the winter), even sophomore summer — nothing. I lived off campus over my sophomore summer and could see the house from my bedroom window, but I had never felt emotionally farther from the sisterhood in my time at Dartmouth than I did during 14X. The most frustrating aspect of the situation was that I had no concrete reason to be so upset — the women in my house were a wonderful support system. I had my own social space, it wasn’t distracting me from my academics lest I made poor decisions of my own accord, and I was getting exposure to nooks and crannies of campus I never would have otherwise.

My junior fall, I was seriously considering depledging. I hadn’t reached clarity in understanding why I was so upset; all I knew was that I wanted the sadness and frustration to stop. My friends, both affiliated and not, were all extremely supportive; after all, the Greek system may be more casual here than it is elsewhere, but it’s still not for everyone. And honestly, I was ready to accept that.

I wish I could articulate here how I went from being so close to depledging to applying to be president, but I can’t. I can’t remember what I was feeling in those couple of weeks during which I did a complete 180, how my brain jumped from one pole to the opposite one. It’s pretty clear that no logic was involved, and when I asked my friend if maybe she could explain why I did this to myself, she said something along the lines of, “Sometimes when you’re handed an opportunity to fix your sadness, you take it.” I realized she was right, and I realized then and there that I really wanted this. And I was lucky enough to get it.

Still, there was a lot I didn’t anticipate. As a Greek president, a lot of eyes are on you — whether you like it or not. I got introduced as “our president” during rush, at tails and pretty much wherever. I struggled to sit in the front of the room at Wednesday meetings, to be in the spotlight like that.

However, what I came to realize was that being president was a turning point for me. The irony of becoming a Greek president was that by giving myself a master status of sorts, I immediately wanted to shed it. The Greek system made me want to be different, to break out of this lumped identity to which we’re all susceptible. I began to understand that being affiliated could never fill a void that was meant to be filled by a multitude of identities.

When I had struggled with possibly leaving my house, I looked to other outlets to keep me happy; I spent time with my dance group, cooked dinners off campus with friends, immersed myself in new activities and rekindled old ones. I was reminded of all the other aspects of my life that are important to me, that are key components of who I am. Once I became president, ironically, it became even easier to identify with those parts of myself; I had already done the deed and brought myself out into the open in my eyes. I became prouder of who I was, and as my sisters continued to accept me for me, in turn I truly learned to love me for myself.

This positive feedback loop has brought me here in this moment, working daily to become a better version of the person I now see myself becoming. I am no longer confused, and if anything I am so grateful to be a conglomeration of so many wonderful, diverse experiences. I now sit in the kitchen, feeling perfectly content, eating out of the tupperware that my mother has brought up because I miss her food. I don’t feel embarrassed; I don’t feel the need to blend in. I also don’t feel like I’m being thrown into a limelight, as I’ve come to understand everyone stands out in his or her own way — everyone has a story to share. I am happy to contribute to the diversity at Dartmouth because without it, this cultural exchange that has richened my life would come to a halt. In a strange sense that I’m still not sure I’m articulating clearly, being given the chance to blend in and forget where I came from made me realize what I truly desired was the exact opposite.

This isn’t meant to be an opinion on whether the Greek system is good or bad, because I honestly don’t know what my opinion on that issue is. This also isn’t to say that being affiliated is the only way to achieve personal growth. All I can say is personally, if it wasn’t for the opportunity to rush, I’m not sure I would have been propelled into this journey of personal growth. Regardless, reflecting as a senior in her last term here, I think it is paramount to stand strong, tall and firm in who we are and to accept nothing short of everything we are. How we get there, who we get there with and how long it takes to get there are all parts of a really messy but beautiful process that lead us to understanding what our better selves may look like. Until then, all we really can do is lend each other a hand as we figure it all out together.