Leutz: Belonging, Virtually

’24s will be forced to learn to love Dartmouth for its personality.

by Peter Leutz | 9/11/20 3:00am

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This column is featured in the 2020 Freshman special issue.

I spent spring term at home — in the company of my family, at a safe distance from my high school friends and in the deafening silence of a college experience that continually disappeared at the end of each Zoom call. My sense of belonging wavered while I lived in a place I had emotionally left behind, as I yearned for a college campus where I was no longer allowed.

COVID-19 has disrupted our existence in physical space. In doing so, it has altered both our collective sense of community and our individual sense of belonging. When a friend asks us to back up, or put on a mask, regardless of protocol, it’s only human to feel unwelcome. We must fight this emotional instinct of social invalidity. Members of the Class of 2024: I want to remind you that restricted physical access to Dartmouth’s campus this fall does not make you any less welcome as the newest members of our Dartmouth community.

The last time I really lived at home was the summer before my freshman year at Dartmouth. I remember those last two weeks when the quarter system ensures that Dartmouth students watch each and every one of their lifelong friends leave them behind. I sat alone in my childhood bedroom — as I do right now — caught somewhere between belonging. I imagine many of you will recognize the feeling.

I arrived on campus for First-Year Trips and was welcomed literally with open arms. Due to the global health crisis, your class will have to enter the Dartmouth community in a very different way. You have been asked to say your goodbyes at home, Trips will be online and all of O-week will be done from behind a mask or a computer screen. Prior to Aug. 26, any student arrival at all was in question. I am sorry. But I promise that it won’t be all bad.

With restricted access to our physical campus, you will learn what it means to be a Dartmouth student in the abstract. No other class has done this. As a result, you will develop a unique fluency in our College’s values, because it will be those values, not a physical presence, that ties  you to this community. Before you will be allowed to so much as shake hands, you will talk, think and eventually care for each other. Care for a community that can exist independently of physical space is far stronger than care for a community that depends on it. In other words, the Class of 2024 will learn to love Dartmouth for its “personality.” Eventually, this love will manifest in a physical space we cannot yet share, and all of us will be better for it.

As established members of the Dartmouth community, it is our responsibility to pass along the best of Dartmouth’s values to the Class of 2024. In doing so, perhaps, we will learn a lesson from the Class of 2024 about maintaining community during a global pandemic. So far, we have struggled. In the past months, we clashed over how best to respond to the virus and over who to blame for its persistence. On July 31, Jordan Sanz ’22 wrote a powerful opinion piece arguing that the student body cannot continue to be pitted against the town of Hanover. Sanz is right, but I argue that our community has fractured along far more lines than just that of students versus the town. It has become a battle of the students versus the faculty versus the administration versus the town, when it should be all of us versus the virus. To unite these groups, a common goal is required. Safely welcoming the Class of 2024 to the Dartmouth community provides us with the perfect opportunity.

While the Class of 2024 prepared to say their goodbyes to their families, they watched over 180 of their future professors sign a letter urging the College to keep them away. To the Class of 2024: It’s not personal — it’s a pandemic. To those faculty members: As you might recall from when you started college, it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong at first. Given the necessary restrictions in place for this fall, it will be even easier for the Class of 2024 to feel that way. Now that we’ve decided to give the student body a chance to follow the rules this fall, it’s imperative we go out of our way to make the incoming class feel welcome.

We simply cannot afford to lose our College’s strong sense of community to this pandemic. After all, that community is one of the main reasons that the Class of 2024 chose to come here in the first place. We owe it to them to demonstrate that this community will not waver. As a community, we share this town and this campus, but we also share values and a commitment to care for each other. Come move-in, we will share all of this with the Class of 2024. Dartmouth College Class of 2024, you will be tested, sanitized, quarantined, masked and distant. But in the upcoming frenzy, do not forget that you belong.

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