TTLG: The Myth of the Ugly Duckling

by Novi Zhukovsky | 8/30/19 2:05am

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by Sunny Tang / The Dartmouth Staff

Freshman orientation: For most, it’s a time of awkward introductions, forced smiles, getting lost and, if you’re lucky, the feeling that you might just have met someone who could be your new best friend. It’s also a time when it seems like your entire life has burst open with the opportunity to become a new person, develop new skills or concentrate on an interest that you haven’t yet had the time or courage to put out there. And so it was for me for a few glorious days of freshman fall — that is, until I was struck down by what I like to call the Freshman Plague. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had colds before. And the symptoms of the Freshman Plague weren’t far off from a regular seasonal sickness. My throat was so sore that I sounded like a chain smoker, and I had so much phlegm in my system that I had to carry a pack of tissues with me everywhere I went. But what makes the Freshman Plague so distinctly terrible is that it’s essentially a death sentence for anyone trying to meet new people and make friends. For the first week of school, every time I introduced myself, people either thought I went by Bovi or remembered me as the girl with the dying cow voice. So much for a good first impression. 

Thankfully, I eventually regained my voice and even managed to make a group of friends with whom I am still close with to this day. The experience also allowed me to see the generosity of many of my peers who were always quick to offer me a cough drop or suggest their favorite cold medicine. The only lasting impact that the Freshman Plague had on my Dartmouth experience was that it made it difficult to apply to all of the exciting clubs and activities I had wanted to join. Devoid of a voice, energy and a clear mind, I was barely able to sort through all the application emails that flooded my inbox. Any sports team try-outs were certainly out of the question given my physical state. It was only by some miracle that I managed to fill out an application for The Dartmouth and got accepted. But after seeing my friends get morning wake-ups with the exciting news that they had been accepted into this a cappella group and that club sport, I began to worry that I wasn’t involved in enough. The prospect of having to wait until the next term — or even the next year — to reapply doubled my worries.

I’ve come to realize that our school’s culture of extensive student involvement is one of the things I love most about Dartmouth. Everyone has their own set of interests and hobbies. This may be due to the fact that we’re in the middle of nowhere, so instead of looking to a big city for entertainment, students engage in campus activities to keep busy. Dartmouth students are truly impressive in the breadth of their interests. This makes it almost impossible to label a Dartmouth student as a certain “type.” The soccer girl might also be really great at drawing and improv comedy. The crunchy Dartmouth Outing Club fanatic could also be really into sports broadcasting and have a knack for writing poetry in French.

However, this facet of Dartmouth culture can make even the busiest student feel like they aren’t involved enough. Being surrounded by so many gifted people with seemingly unending lists of talents and hobbies was intimidating to me. I felt like everyone else around me was pursuing all of these amazing activities, while I, sopping up the lingering effects of the Freshman Plague, had already fallen behind. I began to look down upon the feature that I once thought was the best part of the College. 

As freshman fall continued, however, I began to focus my efforts on the groups I was actually involved in. I began writing articles for the newspaper for all of campus to read: a task that I had absolutely no prior experience with and, to be frank, really terrified me. But as I wrote more and more, I began to realize just how much I loved it. My stories pushed me in ways I could not have predicted: cold-emailing random students, interviewing professors I had never met, questioning some of Dartmouth’s foundational assumptions and, most importantly, finding my own voice. 

“We may not all be swans, but we are not ugly ducklings, either. Every student at Dartmouth has something to offer, regardless of whether or not it entails being a member of a club.”

I began to realize that writing for the paper enabled me to take a look at and assess every facet of life at Dartmouth. I was having conversations with students and professors I would never have otherwise imagined, searching through Dartmouth records and theses in Rauner Library and through it all, learning so much. I came to the realization that focusing my efforts on writing for the paper didn’t mean I was falling behind in the activity sweepstakes. Being a writer enabled me to enter any environment on campus and get an insider’s view of what was going on. Even though I wasn’t personally involved in every activity, my articles helped me get close. Maybe the Freshman Plague prevented me from trying out for a cappella, but it couldn’t stop me from writing about it.

As my mindset surrounding campus involvement began to change, I realized that many other people shared a similar fear of missing out — even those who, to me, seemed to be members of every possible club on campus. While I was unable to apply to many of the groups I was interested in, many of my friends and peers who were able to did — and got rejected. I was too wrapped up in my own self-pity to recognize that many of the people around me actually felt the same way I did.

When arriving on campus, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the vast array of talented people around you. It can sometimes make you feel like an ugly duckling in a pond full of glittering swans. But it’s important to remember that just about everyone else feels the same way. They too worry about being involved enough or acquiring as many obscure and impressive talents as the people around you. And instead of viewing Dartmouth’s vast array of impressive students as a source of anxiety, it should be seen as a valuable opportunity. Where else would you be surrounded by so many incredible people, all with unique interests and hobbies? And when else will you have the freedom to pursue the activities that excite you, without worrying about whether they all tie together in a nice little story for a college essay? (May those forever rest in peace.) 

We may not all be swans, but we are not ugly ducklings, either. Every student at Dartmouth has something to offer, regardless of whether or not it entails being a member of a club. We are not defined by the number of groups we are in but the effort we put into the things we are involved in — classes, friends, relationships and the activities we do end up choosing to dedicate our time to. There will always be another club to join or activity to partake in, but that should not make us feel like we need to do it all. We would all do well to remember that while Dartmouth’s ambitious and talented student body can be overwhelming, it is just one of the many factors that make our school so great. 

This article is a part of the 2019 Freshman Issue.