Verbum Ultimum: Love Yourself

College can be a period of turmoil but also one of growth.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 2/23/18 2:10am

For many, college is a period of self-discovery and newfound independence. This freedom is a blessing, but it can also seem like a curse — with little oversight on how to act and with many influences capable of pressuring students, it is easy to become overwhelmed. Add to that the common assumption that most students seem to be doing fine and some can end up believing that they are worse than others for struggling, that they are missing a spark that must be inherent in others.

In actuality, popular culture shows us every generation experiences these feelings of insecurity, so much so that the basic storyline has inspired a genre — the coming-of-age tale. Indeed, a protagonist (generally a teenager) begins with a certain sense of self, encounters a catalyst (such as college) and emerges changed and matured (a graduated, real-life adult). Coming of age seems personal and individual, yet it is the basis for best-selling books and movies. Despite the isolation it can engender, coming of age and the process it represents, with all of its attached insecurities and doubts are shared experience common to everyone.

Of course, it’s always better if we can alleviate those doubts to begin with, to accelerate the process altogether. A key understanding that can help is the realization that what others portray on the outside does not necessarily reflect how they feel on the inside. Dartmouth students, like students around the country, often talk about “Stanford Duck Syndrome:” A student, like a duck, can appear calm and collected on the surface while internally struggling just to stay afloat. The widespread familiarity of this term, exemplified by a number of articles written both directly and indirectly about this concept, testifies to its universality. Most students, if pressed, will express uncertainty in themselves and the talents for which others admire them. Even those who project the most confidence have insecurities; many may have a “fake it till you make it” attitude. The appearance of success does not always correlate with actual feelings of success, let alone success itself, which conversely suggests that an individual’s personal feelings of failure may be, to those around them, completely hidden.

More importantly, many of the perceptions we have of what we should be feeling or doing comes from a vocal subset of the campus population. At Dartmouth, this pressure tends to emphasize Greek life, drinking culture and hookups. First-years see the most involved people in the community, such as those who perform in the Dimensions show or who lead First-Year Trips, as models of a quintessential “Dartmouth experience.” Yet there is no single “Dartmouth experience.” Anonymous College metrics are telling. Despite the emphasis on hookup culture at Dartmouth, over 31 percent of respondents to one College Pulse survey have never had sex.

Misperceptions remain. This may be because they start long before most students step foot on campus. Just as storytelling reveals the commonalities of everyone’s coming-of-age narratives, it can also create an ideal of what a college experience should be like, despite the existing diversity in students’ personalities and interests. Coming into Dartmouth, some students watch “Animal House,” the 1978 film based on the College that glorifies a fraternity-based, delinquent image of collegiate life. This image is perpetuated through other movies and stories in popular culture, and students coming to Dartmouth may think that this is the proper way to “do” college. Many forget that these movies are generally glorified versions of a college experience that doesn’t necessarily exist.

All said, expectations of normal can end up pinned onto an unrealistic ideal. When these expectations are not met, the result can be feelings of isolation and even failure. There are ways to combat this. Skewed perceptions and expectations come from exposure to the most vocal, whether they are students or popular culture cues. Understanding that the relative volume of these voices does not indicate success, and that these voices are not necessarily representative of the majority of people, is the first step to understanding that there is no one collective college experience for all.

Students should take inspiration from people they admire, but they should not deify others. They should, however, understand what makes them seem so admirable. Outwardly vocal people define their own identity. Though it can at times be difficult to speak up about tough issues, it is important to do so. Speaking up alerts others who want to help, in addition to normalizing and bringing awareness to the insecurities that every student feels in college and helping future generations going through the same coming-of-age process.

College should not be the best four years of anyone’s life — if it were, there would be nothing to look forward to for the decades to come. Instead, it should be four years of growth, maturation and, yes, some turmoil. Understanding that this turbulence is normal and speaking about it can help students become more comfortable in their own shoes, helping them to live better, more fulfilling lives.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the associate opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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