Solomon: Dartmouth in Perspective

To catalyze meaningful global change, we first need to expand our frontiers.

by Ioana Solomon | 3/30/17 12:25am

Before spending the winter term in Paris, everyone I had spoken to who had gone on a study abroad program had sworn by the life-changing wisdom and experience they had gained. I did not believe them. I knew that, just like most statements by Dartmouth students, those opinions were hyperbolized, omitting the negatives while exaggerating the positives, creating the illusion of satisfaction or happiness despite what exists beneath the surface. I would not say that I was right, but I was not wrong either.

No one who had passionately encouraged me to go abroad ever mentioned the fact that the first week is a seemingly unending series of emotional breakdowns. They didn’t talk about the loneliness and fear of being so far from comfort and familiarity. Neither did they speak about the moments of embarrassment, frustration or shock of finding oneself in an entirely different society and culture and being forced to learn how to belong.

Being back on campus, and often bombarded with the same “How was Paris?” question, I now understand why those were never the comments I heard from others about studying abroad. It is because those elements were entirely overshadowed by the much more powerful, profound and transformative result of the experience.

Being forced out of my comfort zone was not an inhibition; it was an opportunity. It was a perfect means to mature, explore and learn. It gave me the ability to better place myself in a more global context and understand my privilege and the responsibility that comes with it. And perhaps as an unintended benefit, it allowed me to understand more about what makes our community so exclusive, so isolated and often so toxic to diversity.

Spending 10 weeks in a different country can hardly be classified as an immersion, but in that short time, I learned several key lessons. There is an undeniable reciprocal relationship between the physical, artistic, cultural, economic and geopolitical structure of a society and the values, beliefs, aesthetics but most importantly, the communication and interactional mechanisms of the people in that society. And if there is a striking difference between the United States and another socioeconomically developed, western, democratic country such as France, there is surely an even more drastic gap between the occidental shell that bounds most of us and the rest of the world. That I could gain so much from communicating with people who are, in the global scheme, only slightly different from me makes it even more necessary to reach further.

The first thing we all need to do if we want to use our education to innovate effectively, leave our mark somewhere or start a global spark in any field, is to actually understand the world we are trying to change. And that will not happen if we remain complacent with our ignorance and our lack of genuine diversity, and if, when confronted with the boundaries of our isolated community, we do not even try to explore within it.

Going to a different country, or partaking in Dartmouth-sponsored programs that often only maintain the socioeconomic and ethnic stratification of our community, will not suffice. Shedding a layer of exclusivity or ignorance isn’t like taking off a coat. It needs to come from within. It needs to involve us making a significant effort to reach out to those who are different from us, to try to stop ourselves from making assumptions or feeding stereotypes and to start having more genuine conversations with one another.

Dartmouth often claims that it is trying to diversify its student body and, while that is laudable, simply admitting students from more diverse backgrounds isn’t enough. We also need to change our culture, the space those students come to inhabit and the way we all interact with one another. Sure, we can keep patting ourselves on the back for having students from practically every corner of the world, but we also need to change the way we tend to place those students under the same “minority” umbrella despite all of their different and fascinating backgrounds.

In spite of the administration’s continuing diversity initiatives, we are still a predominantly white and wealthy community, where minority students can easily feel trapped. Because of their unique backgrounds, they often have to bear the burden of representing the experiences and struggles of an entire group of people we, in the majority, assume they are linked to. And, to avoid isolation or being labeled as an “other,” they might hide their cultural beliefs and practices, their authenticity or their identity, to find a sense of belonging in our community. Dartmouth can claim to celebrate diversity, but it can also attack it, and we need to keep our eyes open.

Participating in one study abroad program cannot allow me to claim that I have completely snapped out of my ignorance or that I am so much more enlightened than my peers. But it did force me to realize that I need to keep seeking experiences that take me away from comfort, familiarity and complacency. And, as an entire campus, we need to wake up and start being less fearful of rejection, of admitting how little we know and of sacrificing our ignorant bliss for a little more maturity and wisdom. We need to keep widening the cracks in the Dartmouth bubble so that we can see and reach beyond it.