Elias: Choose Confidence

Be the big fish in the Dartmouth pond.

by Chantal Elias | 8/30/19 2:00am

Welcome to Dartmouth — a place of self-discovery, creativity and humility. Perhaps it was the very subtlety of students and professors’ intelligence that drew you to the school — it certainly was at the top of my pros and cons list a year ago. The College is composed of devoted intellectuals who prefer to walk the walk over talking the talk. But while humility is a uniting thread throughout Dartmouth — professors and students rarely share their accomplishments— I encourage you to be bold, brave and confident as you take on freshman year. 

I vividly remember receiving The Dartmouth’s Freshman Issue a year ago. Dartmouth mail was gold to me — a reminder that my acceptance wasn’t a silly mistake. After reading the newspaper front to back, I felt more confident than ever in my assumptions about my upcoming freshman year: I was going to be the bottom of my class.

My ideas were not outlandish, and they did not surface unprompted. My high school experience was akin to what many of your experiences probably looked like. I was at the top of my class academically, the passionate go-getter and the student who was involved in just about every extracurricular. I was the big fish in a very small pond. But as soon as I settled on attending Dartmouth College, I was swamped with messages of caution and warning. My friends and family were excited for me to learn among the brightest, but they stressed the need for an adjustment in expectations. I was not going to be the student with the best class average, and I wasn’t going to be the extracurricular queen. I was told that I would get by, but it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. As I marched across my high school stage with my diploma in June 2018, I was already making the switch from an A+ happy dance to a B- celebration. 

My ego continued its downwards plummet when I arrived at Dartmouth’s campus in September. I began to audition and try out for a plethora of clubs and teams. I was instantly reminded of my inferior place here as I received a slew of rejection emails from academic clubs and musical groups. I was conscious of my growing need to find a new identity — one that did not involve the word “success.” I was hungry to be recognized as something more than an average first-year student, and yet I was operating in a major contradiction. As I became close friends with rejection, I started retreating from opportunities because I deemed myself too inexperienced. I hesitated from putting my name forward for leadership roles because I wanted to watch the professionals, the experienced Dartmouth students, take the lead. I decided that I would be a follower for my first year. 

I have chosen to share my story because it is not a unique one. Dartmouth is built on a hierarchy of seniority, experience and earned respect. To be a leader in Cabin and Trail, for example, one must go through extensive training and successfully progress to a leadership role. Membership in a Greek house is an example of a segment of Dartmouth life that is not even accessible to freshmen. Superficially, it can seem as if the seniors are the only students with a voice on campus. A year ago, I was more than happy to buy into the hierarchical framework. I was embarrassed by my self-diagnosed intellectual inferiority and had seamlessly taken on the role of “small fish.” 

I challenge you to reject the pressures of comfortable conformity and I encourage you to stay on the high school high that earned you a spot at Dartmouth. My first-year journey taught me, perhaps too late, that confidence at this College is key. I adored my fall term classes; they were engaging, stimulating and challenging. I sat in class with my eyes wide open and ideas running rampant through my head. But I sat there, mute, in fear that I would waste my professors’ time or become the laughing stock of my classmates. The same problem followed me into extracurriculars, where I hesitantly joined a couple clubs and held my tongue in fear of exposing my naïvety.  

It took me six months to realize that I could be a big fish in a big pond, and no one would shame me for it. In my winter term, I took a class in which I was the only freshman and the majority of my classmates were seniors. I had already prepped myself for failure and rationalized any grade drops with my lack of Dartmouth academic experience. I would wait to answer questions until a senior first offered a comment — until their comments fizzled out and the air was available for my contribution. Slowly though, I grew back into my high school confidence and utilized the small 20-person class to become comfortable in my new home. I challenged myself to raise my hand and feel confident in my ideas. I set a goal to speak at least twice each class and did not allow myself to wait for the older students to take the lead. 

Your first year at Dartmouth is going to be a chaotic journey not matter how many self-reflective opinion columns you read beforehand. That being said, I want you to heed the words of a self-proclaimed Dartmouth underdog: You don’t need to be the naïve, scared freshman student. You can be the dynamic community member who loves to participate in class discussions and feels confident in their opinions. While confidence may seem like a faux-pas in a humble environment, you must believe that you offer something unique and will add immense value to the Dartmouth community. So, welcome to Dartmouth — don’t be afraid to flourish as a big fish in the Dartmouth pond.

This article is a part of the 2019 Freshman Issue.