Authenticity at Dartmouth

How do students find ways to be authentic at the College?

by Carolyn Zhou | 9/14/16 12:15am

As the ‘20s start a new chapter of their lives on campus, questions of identity and fitting in emerge. Lindsay Kusnarowis ‘20, Deven Orie ‘19 and professor of sociology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies Kathryn Lively explained their opinions and observations about authenticity at Dartmouth.

Lively observed that in some ways, college can be an easier time to be oneself.

“College is an opportunity to reinvent yourself because you’re away from your existing friendship networks and family ... but, at the same time, the norms from junior high school and high school are just as strong,” she said. “The thing about college campuses are that they tend to be bigger. You have a little bit more freedom to find people who are like you [since] there are so many different types of people on college campuses.”

Lively noted that during first-year move-in, there was a line of freshmen going into a dining hall. She noticed that there were some people dressed in the “stereotypical” Dartmouth fashion, such as plaid shorts and a pink shirt. But, surprisingly, there were also freshmen who were dressed in a way that didn’t conform to these trends. One thing that struck her was that this group of people was fairly diverse, and everybody looked different. For a moment, there was a lot of individuality. By the winter term, however, she said freshmen tend to conform to a classic “Dartmouth” uniformity.

“One month from now, they’re going to look more alike. Right now, they’re bringing the clothes they thought they needed at Dartmouth. In a couple of months, they’ll throw out the things that make them feel like they don’t fit in,” she said. “It was really striking to see students who hadn’t been Dartmouth students for a while ... who were still figuring things out.”

Orie confirmed the idea that there is a stereotypical way to dress on campus, perhaps influenced by the fact that many students hail from private schools. Orie, who went to a charter school, commented that students who didn’t go to prep school sometimes feel like they have to act and dress a certain way and abide by a certain norm.

When asked about the “ideal Dartmouth guy,” Orie said that there is a lot of pressure to be athletic, as many Dartmouth students are members of sports teams.

“A lot of guys want to be on the sports teams here,” he said. “For example, you have 122 people trying out for men’s club soccer today, even though they made it clear that they could only take a team of fifteen.”

Similarly, Kusnarowis commented on the social pressures on freshmen to conform during orientation.

“In orientation, there’s so much pressure to get a group of friends, really click with your floormates, step into social life right away and get close to people right away,” she said. “There’s a pressure to put forward your best self.”

Orie admitted that as a sophomore, his social life has changed compared to how it was when he was in orientation week.

“Now, I’m talking to a lot less people. Knowing so many people is not a pro,” he said. “You want to instead develop deeper friendships with certain people.”

Lively also mentioned what she called the “Swimming Duck Syndrome,” the pressure to conform socially and academically at Dartmouth and an issue that affects Dartmouth students of all years.

“There’s a norm here that everyone loves Dartmouth, that everything’s easy. There’s not a lot of room on campus to publicly address feelings that go against those primary norms,” she said. “No one wants to admit that they’re struggling.”

Orie echoed this idea, reflecting on his experiences taking Computer Science 50, a notoriously challenging course.

“In CS 50, I know people who struggled really hard in that class. But when it was over, and people were asking how it went, they were like, ‘it was so easy, it was a breeze,’ when I know for a fact it was hard,” said Orie.

Lively was reluctant to provide a simple definition to something as complicated as an authentic self.

“It’s sort of funny, this idea of having an authentic self, because our sense of self is so embedded in the contexts we live in. You act very differently when you’re at home compared to when you’re at school, but does that mean that you’re not acting authentically at home or at school? We put a high premium in the United States on authenticity, but society wouldn’t function if we were our authentic selves all the time ... sometimes we like people to adhere to norms.”

According to Lively, there should be a fine balance between total “authenticity” and putting on a complete facade.

Kusnarowis had a similar idea, commenting on how she and some of her fellow freshmen classmates posted short bios of themselves on Dartmouth’s Class of 2020 Facebook group. According to her, on social media, positive expressions generally outweigh negative ones.

“The introduction posts definitely skewed positive. People don’t generally introduce themselves as, ‘hi, I’m Lindsay, here are my worst fears.’ If being authentic was expressing all of your emotions, positive and negative, all the time, then I don’t think they were being authentic. However, I doubt that anyone was lying about their interests,” said Kusnarowis.

Kusnarowis expressed doubt that absolute authenticity was something that all people should and could work toward. Kusnarowis understood that there are situations where it’s understandable, and even preferred, to not disclose everything.

In terms of defining authenticity, Lively began by explaining what the self is.

“People choose to be in roles that are consistent, that cluster together. It’s easy to move between them because the emotions and behaviors are often similar,” she said.

She provided the example of a professor and a junkie. People generally tend to be one or the other; people are rarely both because there isn’t a lot of overlap.

“The self is completely contextual and malleable,” she said.

Lively then defined what she thought authenticity was.

“We tend to stay within a certain set of behaviors and identities that allow us to feel comfortable,” she said. “Our authentic self is one where we don’t feel a lot of discomfort.”

When asked about authenticity in social media, Lively, like Kusnarowis, pointed out that complete authenticity may sometimes be a goal we shouldn’t try to pursue.

“For example, there are social media trolls who post mean things in anonymous forums, and you can say that these people are being 100% their authentic selves. But they’re being very anti-social because they’re not taking responsibility for what they’re posting,” she said.

In this respect, authenticity is a double-edged sword to Lively. In general, she does not believe that there is a lot of authenticity on social media websites.

“I see a lot of people posting the same things and getting the same reactions.”

Lively mentioned the Burning Man festival, an annual gathering in the desert for people to express their supposedly authentic selves.

“If you look at the pictures, everyone is dressed exactly alike. I could write the narratives of people going to Burning Man at this point because they’re all so similar,” she said. “It’s hard to be authentic these days due consumerism and capitalism ... Authenticity becomes something that you can ‘find’ in a catalogue.”

Another complexity of authenticity is that it is being your true self without all of the social trappings, argued Lively. However, because she finds “self” so inextricably linked to society, it’s difficult for her to define authenticity.

“Today, I asked one of my students, ‘when you think about yourself, what does that mean?’ One of my students said her name, class year and sports team. I asked her, ‘okay, what else?’ And she replied, ‘what do you mean? That’s what I’ve been saying.’ I asked her again, ‘is that all you are?’ We develop these elevator pitches.”

In terms of changing oneself, Lively believes that people often prefer to change their surroundings rather than change who they truly are.

“When we don’t feel comfortable in a situation, it’s a lot easier to change our environment or get out of that environment rather than change who we are. So I do think we have a core understanding of who we are. In the transition to college, you’re being given the opportunity to do things differently. We often don’t do that. But we could [if we wanted to].”