Keep on Swimming: Trajectories of Confidence

by Alexa DiCostanzo | 2/13/19 2:20am

This isn’t another article about the Dartmouth “duck syndrome” trope that’s been discussed half to death. We get it! Kids here want to put up a good front. The best front. They want the Goldman Sachs job, the place at a top med school, the hot significant other who will become their alum trophy spouse to have supergenius, Dartmouth-green-clad babies with. 

Okay, wait. Maybe the last one is only my fantasy.

The truth about confidence at Dartmouth is more nuanced than the image of a duck paddling frantically underwater. That motif embodies the pressure consuming the lives of so many young people here: pressure to maintain high grades, a competitive social life and five-mile-long lists of responsibilities. But this metaphor is, at best, unsatisfactory, and, at worst, an unintentional form of erasure. By nature of its brevity and vagueness, it provides no insight into the stories — no grittiness of biography — unique to individuals. There is simply no room in the image of a duck for themes like gender, class, sexual violence and racism to manifest in all their brutal poignancy. I spoke to three women whose stories elucidated how the duck metaphor fails to capture the intricacies of individual accounts. 

Before I interviewed anyone for this article, I expected the trajectory of student confidence to follow a predictable, straightforward narrative. Before starting school, self-esteem levels would be decent. (Maybe there’d be healthy room for improvement.) By the time senior year rolled around, students would have triumphed over numerous unspeakable difficulties, scaled proverbial mountains and realized they were actually pretty capable individuals who would do just fine in the next stage of life. In short, I anticipated most students’ confidence levels would have increased steadily over the years — which may be less indicative of life and experience at the College than it is of growing up in general. Instead, the stories of women I spoke with depicted journeys that took them from cruising comfortably at flying altitude, to down in the gutter, to back up again and all the pit stops along the way. 

The first woman I spoke to was Elle, who told me she arrived at college with a reasonable amount of self-confidence. Elle, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, was 18 years old, ready to leave behind a toxic high-school relationship and start anew. By all accounts, she had moved past the ubiquitous adolescent confidence issues that plague all of us at some point. Upon her arrival at Dartmouth, however, she perceived an immediate shift in thinking. In light of her interactions freshman fall with older male students on campus, some of those past issues slowly started to resurface. 

“It was not always in explicit ways, but the demeanor of [male students] would make me feel that my appearance was all that was important — not my personality, not my intelligence, not my feelings,” she said. This triggered for her something of a mild obsession — frequent trips to the gym, counting calories — that occupied her mind more with each passing day. “More and more I would be aware of how my figure looked. And that wasn’t something I’d done since middle school,” she said. 

Elle spoke about how she perceived there to be a palpable gendered power dynamic at Dartmouth, different than what she’d experienced at home, or in big cities around the East Coast. “It just isn’t the same scale [as it is at here]. I’ve never been objectified anywhere else the way I’ve been at Dartmouth,” Elle said. She described being catcalled, harassed, coerced into sex and photographed without permission. “A lot of body comments,” she recalled. 

Receiving unwanted attention at Dartmouth is more difficult than it is at other places, she added. “You’re amongst people who are more likely to be a part of your future, who are more likely to cross your path on campus — literally,” she said. “If you’re like I was, violated, your very first term, you’re going to see that person every term you’re on campus until graduation. And that has been a really hard thing for my own confidence and mental health.”

Concerning her own trajectory of confidence, Neca Chinchilla ’20 explained, “Dartmouth has made me more cynical. I don’t always assume the best of people. A lot of people here are kind of racist — inadvertently, or intentionally.” She mentioned it is particularly difficult to advocate for herself as a woman of color. “[At Dartmouth] I feel less assured. When I go back home, I feel like I’m a whole other person,” Chinchilla said.

“Dartmouth has made me more cynical. I don’t always assume the best of people. A lot of people here are kind of racist — inadvertently, or intentionally.”

We wondered aloud why that was.

“My acting professor had an idea about people putting on a front at Dartmouth, and in life,” she said. “Dartmouth encourages it because [we value] the things that bring you merit.” Chinchilla believes that students’ reluctance to show their true selves stems from fear. “People don’t show their interiority because it’s not always valued here. I think that’s what makes a lot of people self-conscious. You’ve got to have all these big accomplishments,” she said. Perhaps because concrete achievements are so prized in this environment, she suggested, it is less important to discover and talk about things that you enjoy, and things that make you happy. This, in turn, sometimes makes it more difficult to connect with others.

Jada Brown ’21, who was born and raised in Jamaica, reflected on how she developed her own sense of equanimity. “Growing up, I always thought of myself as a confident person.” As a high school student, she moved from home to attend The Hotchkiss School, a boarding school in Connecticut. There, she experienced something of a culture shock. “I had never been around so many white people in my life,” she told me, laughing. “In Jamaica everyone is from different cultures and we’re all a melting pot, so even the idea of race was something I never had to deal with before coming to [the U.S.].” 

After attending a high school with 10 black students in a class of 170, Dartmouth seemed positively diverse in comparison. Still, both institutions are elite New England schools, which means issues tend to carry over from one to another. “There’s an idea [at Dartmouth] that women of color aren’t pretty, and that it takes a specific type of black body to be attractive on this campus,” she said. “On a campus where the ideal standard of beauty is blonde, skinny and white, even black guys don’t hook up with black girls,” she explained. “White girls are like, this idea of beauty [men of color] want to have. Even if it’s not what they find attractive, it’s just what they think they should find attractive.”

 “Since being [at Dartmouth] I’ve learned to just stop caring, really and truly.” Jada shrugged. “It kind of started happening senior year of high school, and coming here, at this point I don’t really care what anyone else says, or what anyone else thinks. I’m just trying to do me.” She said she felt her confidence had increased since arriving at Dartmouth.

The turning point for her occurred freshman fall, the first time she went out and witnessed the interactions between people trying to hook up. “I just realized that nothing had changed [from high school], and that I had to be better, to deal with this again. I realized that I came to a place with the exact same issues, and I can’t let myself succumb to that.” She sighed. “Being a thick black girl on this campus is rough. I’ll say that much. I never stop feeling that way. I’ve never not felt it.” 

So what is confidence? According to Brown, a confident person is someone who isn’t afraid to be themselves in every situation possible — the best version of themselves, without fear of judgement. Elle told me a confident person is someone who is comfortable with who they are, while recognizing their own imperfections. Chinchilla suggested that confidence has to do with strong convictions — to believe one is right, regardless of whether or not they actually are. By the end of each interview, all three women expressed positive arcs in their own self-perception, although the road to that point has been anything but easy. I said I didn’t want to harp on the faithful duck metaphor, but to some extent it is useful and catchy and speaks to some truth. However, the details of what occurs underwater deserve our attention. They serve to remind us there is much more we can do to guarantee some ducks don’t need to paddle so hard.