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The Dartmouth
April 18, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Ma: A Sense of Place

The details are what make a place memorable.

This column is featured in the 2017 Commencement & Reunions Issue.

I’ve only abused my press credentials once to get into an event. The night before the 2016 election, then-President Barack Obama was stumping for Hillary Clinton at the University of New Hampshire. After a lost ZipCard, a 3 a.m. Enterprise car rental, a 7 a.m. wakeup and a two-hour drive, Priya and I made it to the press line — two senior editors downgraded to reporter and photographer for the day.

I hadn’t taken news photos in over a year, and never for an event of this scale. Too many variables have to align for a good photo — lighting, timing, angle, shutter speed — and in that crowded stadium I felt so small. The first black president campaigning for the first woman to be nominated by a major party, the first woman who might be president — how could I possibly fit that narrative into a 4 by 6 frame?

My photo editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called that elusive ideal a “sense of place.” It means getting there early and staying late to capture the people and their relationship to the place they are in. The best photos tell a story without words, and that means looking beyond the spectacle to show how we arrived here in the first place.

In photography, an eye for that complexity becomes second nature with practice. At the Clinton rally, I found it in the women who brought their sons as well as their campaign signs, the teenagers that whipped out their smartphones once Obama took the stage, the section so carefully set aside with a sign language interpreter to make the event as inclusive as possible. “Stronger together,” captured in visuals.

I’ve found myself thinking about my editor’s advice more often as four years at Dartmouth begin to wind down. Here, I find it hard to grasp my own sense of place — how did I end up here, and who have I become? I’ve smiled and nodded and laughed through so many alumni telling me how Dartmouth will shape me, but even now, days before Commencement, I’m still not sure what that means.

Undeniably, this is an exceptional place. It’s where I learned to ask big questions and to be critical of answers that come too easily. It’s where I’ve found a love for telling stories — through photos, through data, through the classic archetype of being the annoying reporter. Here, I’ve met people who’ve changed the way I think, who’ve let me cry through some of my worst moments, and who have been forgiving as I grew through my flaws.

This is also an ordinary place. It’s full of people who spend time making statistics memes instead of doing their statistics problem sets, who sometimes sleep through lunch plans and who often make mistakes. We’re told from matriculation that we’re the best and the brightest, the future leaders, and when we screw up, hey, at least we’re at Dartmouth. But I bristle at the idea that just being here makes us better than everyone who is not. Some of us have done exceptional things, but I haven’t been constantly impressed by the 20-somethings trying to make it from day to day — myself included.

Too often, I think we treat being here as a golden ticket without questioning where it’s meant to take us. And ultimately, I think that reverence obscures the fact that Dartmouth can be a place that grinds you down. For all that I’ve loved about Dartmouth, there are times where I’ve been made to feel like I’ll never quite be welcome here. It’s where someone told me there were too many Asians in their Greek house, or called me a racial slur at Pine. It’s where, as an editor of this paper, I’ve had to draw the line on free speech versus hate speech and saw the cruelty members of this community only exhibit behind online anonymity. To be critical of an institution doesn’t mean I love it any less — it means that I hope that it chooses to grow out of its flaws, just like I’ve had to in my time here.

Recently, my friend Rachel asked me if I ever regretted coming here. I don’t. On par, I’ve had a wonderful time with wonderful people. Besides, in broad strokes, my growing up to 22 and finishing college would have been the same in any place.

“Right,” she said. “But in any other place, you wouldn’t have met me.”

In the moment, I laughed and said I would have met someone else who would have been like her, but different. A sense of place has taught me, above all, that Dartmouth is just a place.

But the thing is, I wouldn’t trade my Rachel for anyone else. And there’s something about the specificity, the ups and downs that are unique to the details of being here. Long nights in Robinson Hall for the paper, lazy days by the Connecticut River, unplanned chats with professors in Silsby Hall — this may all just be a place, but it’s where this all happened to me. Maybe I would have ended up the same person in any other place, but I’m glad I did it here.

Annie Ma ’17 is a former executive editor of The Dartmouth.