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The Dartmouth
April 15, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Khanna: Growing Up at Dartmouth

Creating identity can happen without losing oneself to social standards.

As we sped down Highway 89 en route to my very first college debate tournament, the four walls of our team’s rented minivan vibrated with the beat of pop music blasting from the front of the car. My teammates shouted over the music and each other, our deafening six-man circus drawing annoyed glances from passing cars. Squeezed into the back row, the ruckus from the front and the sound of my fingers tapping anthropology notes into my computer provided the harmony to the opening chords of the Moana soundtrack, played on a loop through my earbuds for the duration of our two-hour journey. 

My love of Disney music is not the only remnant of my childhood that I have stubbornly refused to concede as I have grown older — I also love Winnie the Pooh quotes, soft fleece pajama pants, stickers and storybooks. I like going to bed early on Friday nights after a long week of working late and waking up early to go hiking on my free Saturdays. Yet by noon every Saturday, you can almost always find me in the Stacks, reading papers written by famous anthropologists or toiling over problem sets based on mathematical principles created more than 300 years ago. The contrast between the scholarly focus and childlike joy of these two opposing facets of my life are the result of a common conundrum here at the Big Green: how to mature into an adult without losing the authenticity of childhood. 

In social circles, family lessons, popular culture and secondary education, college is often portrayed as the segway from childhood to “the rest of life.” Per the College’s mission statement, the academic rigor and focused curriculum at Dartmouth are designed to give students the tools for “a lifetime of learning and of responsible leadership.” From both mainstream society and Dartmouth, there seems to be a common perception from the outside looking in that wading through the waters of endless homework assignments, lectures, and term papers provides the pathway to becoming a “grown-up” at the Big Green. 

Yet for many students, the challenges presented in the classroom are nothing new. In the application cycle for the Class of 2022, the College admitted its most competitive class to date, accepting 8.7 percent of applicants from across all 50 states and 65 countries. These statistics expose the reality of what it means to be a Dartmouth student: going to class every day with peers who are at least just as qualified, if not more so, than oneself. It means working on class projects with people who have won prestigious awards, received perfect test scores or already have a fully developed passion in a subject you didn’t know existed. For many students in this highly motivated and intellectual environment, the drive to perform at the highest level of academic achievement is nothing new. 

Suddenly thrust into a world in which scholarly excellence is no longer a distinguishing factor, but rather the status quo, students accustomed to being superstars must search for alternative ways to stand out. Equivocating this search for identity with a desire to someday attain the same lauded status many of them enjoyed in high school, many Dartmouth students see the “goal” of adulthood as a race that begins the second they step foot on campus freshman fall. Their progress, as they eagerly embark with breakneck speed on their journeys, is marked by how quickly they can reach the normative standards of what it means to be a student here.  An exalted major, stellar grades and a prestigious internship are the most self-evident criterion in the race to adulthood amongst students at Dartmouth. Yet students often fail to recognize the more nuanced, less obvious ways that stratify masses here at the College. Navigating the social scene with ease, wearing the latest trends, affiliation with the most popular sororities and fraternities, and even how free time is spent have become the true benchmarks of leaving behind the childish overachievers they were in high school for the chic and mature college students that they have become. 

Adhering to the social standards at Dartmouth is not necessarily bad. For some students, they represent their authentic reality, the freedom of college providing the catalyst that they needed to reveal their true identity. For others, lost amidst the hubbub of the 10-week terms, the ability to look to community norms as a guideline for how to begin creating their own experiences is comforting. Yet the deeply engrained social customs of going out to Greek Houses every Saturday night, having connections with everyone on campus and securing prestigious internships at top consulting firms feed a stereotype that assumes an immediate adherence to these traditions. They create a single story of a single path into adulthood and create undue pressure to adhere to a persona that “does Dartmouth correctly.” These exacting standards leave little room for the emergence of an identity over time that is the product of an individual’s unique past and present. This tendency toward the erasure of the malleable line between childhood and adulthood here at Dartmouth creates a paradox of expectations: the desire to find a mature confidence in our identities, while remaining child-like in our reliance on others to identify precisely what being an adult looks like. 

I have only been at Dartmouth for six short weeks. In that time, I’ve already met people from places I’ve never heard of, taken classes in subjects that I didn’t know existed and have had experiences that reach far beyond the scope of my life back home. Yet as I create my new life here in Hanover, I remain a mixture of the worlds of my childhood and the worlds that I am discovering here on campus — a little bit of Disney music, and a little bit of pop harmonizing to create something new.