On Taking Up Space
Confidence is about learning to speak up for yourself.
College is weird. Part extended summer camp, part boarding school for semi-grownups, part elitist neoliberal institution, part academia machine, college means different things to different people, but no one really knows what it’s going to be like until they’re there. My first impression of Dartmouth was of miles and miles of trees. On the drive up, my mom and I felt like we were headed to the middle of nowhere — coming from dry, dusty southern California, I had never seen so many trees in my life. It felt like I was entering a different world.
Now, four years later, that world has become a temporary home. The past term has been one of reflection and of lasts: last formal, last exam, last all-nighter, last time tripping on basement stairs (hopefully). When I think back on my time at Dartmouth, it’s all kind of a blur, but I remember the feelings I’ve felt while I’ve been here, everything from the warmth of spending a good night with friends to the panic of forgetting to turn in an assignment. I often say college is the time when people become bigger versions of themselves, figuring out who they are outside of the comforts of home and familiar people and places. College gives you the space to come into yourself, and for me that meant learning how to take up space.
Dartmouth wasn’t created for people like me, and for others even less so. As a Korean-American female, and a small, somewhat unassuming one at that, there have many times I’ve felt unwelcome here. As is often discussed, Dartmouth was founded by a Christian missionary on the pretense of converting and educating Native Americans in the area to train them to become missionaries themselves, though the College was primarily intended for whites. The College has only been coed for a fifth of the time since its founding, and that deeply embedded history still resonates on campus today. These obstacles have forced me to learn how to push back, how to claim space, and when I think back to my freshman self, that’s how I’ve grown the most. I now make professors who mistake me for other Asian-American students learn my name. I’m now comfortable being the only female in a fraternity basement full of white dudes, and I’m also comfortable with not participating in the Greek system when I don’t want to. I don’t let myself be interrupted by others who are louder or more aggressive. But this growth took a lot of time, and I think I owe a lot of it to my time writing and editing for The D.
I wrote my first story over the first week of freshman fall on a new career development program. It took me an embarrassingly long time to craft admittedly unconvincing interview requests, and I’m sure my interviews went horribly. The in-person editing process took over an hour, and I was terrified the entire time. But having my name printed in the paper as a byline was an incredible confidence boost as I was trying to figure out how to live on my own and find my place at Dartmouth, and working for The D has been one thing I’ve consistently been a part of all four years at college. And gradually I became comfortable with going out on a limb, cold-calling professors and locals I had never met, approaching random students at Collis.
Through writing for The D, and deeply researching the topics I wrote on, I gained experience bit by bit, and I started to become confident enough to apply my expertise in and out of the newsroom. I could form well-informed opinions and assert those opinions when I wanted to. My leadership style is quiet, but backed with decisiveness I developed through years of trial and error, failure and recovery.
Throughout college, I’ve learned a lot of skills, a lot of which may be relatively irrelevant. I now have a degree in neuroscience that I may never use — I know more about dopaminergic receptors in the ventral striatum than I’ll ever need to know. I can lay out pages in InDesign, play a decent game of pong, order a tasty Collis smoothie and give a tour guide spiel. But more than acquiring random tidbits, I’ve learned how to gain expertise and the self-assuredness to apply that expertise. College has by no means been easy, but as clichéd as it is, it forced me to grow in ways I didn’t expect. And Dartmouth is by no means perfect, but I now have the tools to look at the world around me with a critical eye. I can call Dartmouth out for its inadequate support for sexual assault survivors, its paltry mental health resources, its disproportionately low funds for investing in students and faculty of color and the opaqueness of its administrative policies, just to name a few issues, and I have the knowledge to back these claims. College has given me the space to develop the skills I’ll need to thrive in the “real world,” and for that I’ll look back on my time here with fondness.
Erin Lee ’18 is the former news executive editor of The Dartmouth.