The Tragedy of The Freshman Plague

by George Gerber | 10/16/19 2:05am

by Clara Pakman / The Dartmouth


If you’re sick during freshman year, it’s as if you’re quarantined off from everyone else. If you dare to cough in the middle of class, everyone gives you the side-eye. While Dartmouth’s reputation may not lie in being overly competitive, one competition exists freshman year: avoiding the freshman plague. Some ’23s have already failed in this great race to stay healthy — myself included. I commend those who have successfully avoided it, but such a feat is getting harder and harder as we cross the midpoint of the term.

When I woke up with a runny nose and nasty cough on the first day of classes, I was agitated, to say the least. Unfortunately, my first week of college involved more NyQuil™ than I ever expected. Being sick drained so much of my energy and made it harder to meet new people. Plus, no one wanted to contract the disease from me, so I was always kept at a distance. It took a week for my symptoms to subside, but remnants of the plague still come back even four weeks later. My cough really never went away.

Trying to investigate the plague proved to be extremely difficult. Contracting it is a random process, and there’s no one “patient zero” on whom we can place the blame. Just a few facts are known about the mysterious disease. We know that it consists mainly of congestion, sore throat and a cough. It tends to linger for a long time, and medication may or may not relieve the symptoms.

Mihir Sardesai ’23 has the common symptoms of the plague and has headaches from it. Though he has been taking medication, he said hasn’t helped much. He said that being sick has really inconvenienced him.

“I’ve had it for the past two months, and it hasn’t gone away yet. I’ve gone to Dick’s House four times and even took a blood test for it. I’m currently on an antibiotic for a sinus infection,” Sardesai said.

Sardesai also added that being away from home has made him miss his family and that his illness has added to his homesickness. It’s difficult to have to take care of his sickness just as classes begin, he said.  

Director of the Student Wellness Center Caitlin Barthelmes said that homesickness is a common experience for many students. However, being sick freshman year of college clearly adds a deeper layer to this phenomenon. At home when I got sick, I could stay home from school for a day to rest. However, in college, my family and old friends are not here to take care of me. I am stuck in an entirely new place, isolated from the familiar faces that make me feel at home. 

The Student Wellness Center has a framework to help students understand their wellness and wellbeing. Barthelmes said that wellness has many different components and isn’t merely confined to one’s physical or mental health. To illustrate this point, she used an example of a tree with seven distinct roots to describe the factors that affect students. Each root has a purpose and helps us thrive intellectually, physically, financially, environmentally, socially, emotionally and spiritually. If even just one root suffers, Barthelmes said, it can impact the other roots. For example, if you’re dealing with an illness and place stress on your physical health, your emotional wellness might also suffer because of excess worrying about keeping up with classes. Intellectual wellness might also suffer due to a lack of engagement. The model she suggested helps to represent the interconnectedness of all the roots.

“I like to also offer the alternative that when one of our roots is struggling, we can also look to what root might be able to replenish us or restore us or support us. So, for instance, students who might be suffering with an illness, they might want to take stock of where else [they could] rely on. And so, socially, maybe that’s when [they] connect with parents or friends or resources here so that [they] can take time to take care of [themselves] or get what [they] need to perform better in class,” Barthelmes said.

I’ve noticed that life at Dartmouth keeps bustling on for those with the plague. The quarter system moves at such a quick pace that most students cannot afford to stay in bed all day. They work through the sickness, and it’s likely the lack of rest and stress that causes the plague to linger for so long. The burden of being sick compounds with the normal pressure of one’s academics and social life. The result only makes matters worse, creating a vicious cycle of getting slightly better one day only to get sicker the next.

Yue Zhuo ’23 said she has had a difficult time dealing with being sick so early in her Dartmouth experience. It started with a headache during week three, and the plague only got worse from there. Her symptoms have varied dramatically in the past two weeks, but some new ones — like the infamous cough — have recently appeared. There’s no sign that the plague is going away anytime soon for her, and she mentioned that this illness has affected her daily life.

“It makes me want to sleep through classes, and I actually ended up missing an x-hour on a Tuesday. I went to my morning class, but I came back and went right to sleep because my head hurt so much,” Zhuo said.

Zhuo, like many first-year students, is taking a heavy workload this fall. She’s been busy studying for her classes while trying to make time for her friends and extracurriculars.

It’s one thing to be ill at Dartmouth, but it’s a whole different thing to a sick freshman at the College. Everything’s so new, and sickness can really trouble first-year students. It makes school work hard to get through, and it makes it tougher to stay positive. To those that are currently sick, take the time to get some rest and get better; it’ll only help you in the long run. To those that haven’t dealt with the freshman plague yet, try to avoid it at all costs. As cliché as it is, keep washing your hands and get proper rest. Trust me when I say that it’s better to take the extra time to care for yourself than to battle a cold all of freshman fall.

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