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The Dartmouth
April 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Li Shen: One Year Out, One Year Closer

Frankly, none of us are special.

In less than one week, I will have officially finished my freshman year at Dartmouth. In numbers, it looked like this: nine classes, eight opinion columns written for The Dartmouth, seven rejected applications (as a caveat, two rejections came from the same place), six close friends whom I treasure dearly, five days a week (every week) when I did not get enough sleep, four dramatic emotional outbursts, three pairs of lost headphones, two embarrassing incidents featuring me dropping food and making a mess at various dining locations and one constant cycle of oscillation. I am referring to the way I swung — back and forth, up and down, forward and backward — from one extreme to another: jubilance to despair, serenity to panic, confidence to shame, pride to humility. It was truly the best of times and the worst of times.

I am sure many Dartmouth students can relate to my year of oscillation. I hear it all the time in response to the question “Hey, how are you?” The answer is either “I’m great!” or “My life is falling apart.” Rarely will I hear someone say that they are just … average. So-so. Nothing to complain about and nothing to extol. Dartmouth students seem to always portray themselves as either the most stressed or the most successful. Operating anywhere in between would suggest mediocrity, negligence or — worst of all — an unwillingness to push oneself. After all, if people are not the most stressed or the most successful, are they really doing enough to earn their spot at this school?

For the past nine months, I have certainly been a guilty perpetrator of this trend. Like a metronome set to the highest tempo, I oscillated between the highs and the lows so rapidly that I hardly ever just let myself be. I could not be merely content or merely upset; everything had to be high-stakes, and everything I did or felt had to be special. If everyone at Dartmouth had been handpicked for admission as a result of their special qualities, how could I live my life here as anything less than the most special? In retrospect, that was the most harmful mindset I could have had to start off my college career.

Recently, I have been thinking about the phrase, “You are not special.” A few years ago, my local high school made national headlines when the 2012 commencement speech revolved around the idea that none of the graduating class — or anyone else, for that matter — was special. Not one of those innovative, passionate, smart, ambitious people could call themselves special, because there were thousands of people just like them who were graduating on that very day. Thousands of valedictorians, thousands of sports team captains and over a thousand rising Dartmouth freshmen. “You are not special” sounds like a daunting condemnation when so many people have been told all their lives that they can be, should be, must work to be that most special person. However, that phrase has grounded and comforted me more than anything else this year.

Realizing that no one’s trials and tribulations are special can alleviate the loneliness of the ups and downs. Crying in a bathroom? Hey, someone else probably did that an hour ago. Got a fantastic grade back on a midterm? Awesome, your friend probably did, too. Realizing that “you are not special” also frees people from the expectation that they have to be at one extreme or another. Feeling just average today? No worries, so is everyone else (when they admit the truth). As students here, we can all stop oscillating between being the most stressed or the most successful, because there is no “most.” None of us are special. Sure, some of us will go on to become trailblazers in politics, medicine, technology, what-have-you, but plenty of trailblazers have come before us and, thankfully, plenty will come after. None of them will be special, either; knowing that makes reaching trailblazer status so much less intimidating.

I am now one year out of high school and one year closer to graduating from college. Do I feel like I am one year closer to figuring out the rest of my life? Absolutely not, and the uncertainty of my future is the root of most of my existential crises. When the waves of panic crest and crash into me, I just remember that there are tens of millions of confused, nervous college students out there who are having the same crises. None of us are special for it, and that is a comfort.