Lessons I Learned

by Charlie Rafkin | 5/24/16 5:08pm


Dartmouth has strengthened me a great deal, but it has cut me down in certain ways, too. That’s mostly been for good.

The College is intended to provide its students with confidence, and I’ve certainly become empowered — educationally, socially, emotionally. I’ve enjoyed, above all, a number of wonderful friendships here. I’ve fallen into a few exceptional academic opportunities that have changed my aspirations and frame of reference. I’m lucky enough to feel able, really able, to accomplish my goals.

But even as Dartmouth has given me confidence, it has also forced me to reassess decisions I made because I was too self-assured and helped me see that I’m not quite as independent as I thought I was.

Maybe this is all too abstract, so I’ll give some examples. There are the smaller things — blunders on presentations I thought I had nailed, the dozens of times when I raised my hand to answer quickly and missed the boat entirely.

But I’m more concerned about the deeper errors. One of my best friends today is a person whom I hardly noticed my freshman or sophomore years because I didn’t listen hard enough to what he was saying. How great could it have been if we became friends sooner? Or what if I never paid attention at all?

How many people are there at Dartmouth whom I’ve missed because I wasn’t looking hard enough?

I came late to the discipline I think I want to study for the rest of my life because, as a 20-year-old who had never taken a college-level course in the subject, I thought myself knowledgeable enough to reject the topic entirely. What if I hadn’t ended up in the job that piqued my interest? Or what if I had been able to squeeze more out of my studies here?

I stuck with one main extracurricular project, the student newspaper, throughout my entire time at Dartmouth. Certainly, I learned a great deal by working in Robinson Hall toward a goal that I cared about. Even so, I joined the student newspaper the first week of my freshman year. So I have to wonder: was I really searching to find the activities that excited me, or did I somehow think I had it all figured out?

The worst part of all is that I was even warned not to submit to this instinct. Before I arrived at Dartmouth, my dad gave me really exceptional advice. Give people a fair shot, he said. People will surprise you, so be charitable. It’s amazing how, even when I knew the advice was good advice, even when I already knew that I approached a great deal of interactions with far too much hubris for someone who hadn’t really earned it, I still managed to ignore what he said.

My time at Dartmouth, despite the confidence I’ve gained, has helped me see that I am not nearly as thoughtful, rational or charitable as I could be.

Dartmouth has also helped me observe that I’m not as independent a person as I thought I was, either. One winter, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Paris. I have studied French since I was 8 years old, and I have wanted to live in France ever since. But on a foreign study program without any close friends, when I hardly knew anyone in the city, I felt lonely. I remember walking around the city after class and wishing that I had found some other people with whom I could enjoy the experience. I couldn’t believe that, despite the immense privilege of studying abroad in Europe, I somehow did not feel carefree.

The next fall, I worked at a job that I loved — the one that inspired me to change my academic course entirely. But I was living in a city without many students I knew, and I felt the same loneliness.

Actually studying in Paris, or working a job I loved, didn’t make me as happy as I thought it would. To enjoy the experience, I needed to share it with friends. It felt infuriating to work hard to land a job that felt meaningful, or finally to study in a city I loved — only to have my happiness depend on the people I was around.

Yes, humans are social animals. Yes, there’s no great shame in enjoying other people. And I guess that if I had, say, retreated to the wilderness for a term and fished salmon in Alaska, then it would not really surprise me to feel lonely — that’s sort of the point of the exercise. But to live in a big city, conduct work I cared about, and wish, nevertheless, that I was just near familiar people? That struck me as coddled, even weak.

I learned about myself from being away from others, and of course I’d do it again. But throughout my time at the College, and especially my time away from Dartmouth, I’ve learned just how reliant on being around friends I am. I wish I felt hardier — more capable of venturing out on my own.

With graduation, I won’t have a choice. And while I’m excited for the chance to live in a city as an adult and to learn more about myself away from the shelter of a small liberal arts college, I’ll confess that I’m also scared. I wonder whether I’ll ever enjoy communities as rich as the ones that I’ve found here, and I’m frightened to leave them behind.

Dartmouth has cut me down in exactly the right places. I’ve learned not to leap into decisions guided by unexamined assumptions, and I’ve learned that, to some extent, I’m still dependent on other people. Still, I suppose I do know, abstractly, that it is the right time to go — that I’ll learn more from being away from the grooves of familiar friendships and coursework that I’ve built over four years. Yeah, I’m a little scared, deep in my guts. But whoever told you it’s so bad to be scared?