Unpacking For The Fall

by Caris White | 9/16/20 2:15am

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by Naina Bhalla / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

The ritual of packing and unpacking has always marked the beginning of college. Students pack up their lives at home — at least mostly — and arrive on campus to start a new life for the next nine months. Their dorms, which were stark, undecorated bedrooms just days prior, are given a new life and personality by the things these students bring.

This year, incoming students were instructed to bring only what they could carry on move-in day in case a rapid evacuation is necessary. And that’s only the students who were lucky enough to have preference for on-campus housing, since half of undergraduates weren’t offered a place to stay at all. For students who are living off campus or at home, unpacking for the fall almost certainly looks and feels a lot different than it did last year.

For me, unpacking this fall has never been easier and never felt harder. Gathering up my physical belongings was quick because everything I own fits into a duffel bag and my backpacking pack. Ninety percent of my belongings are still in residential life storage, locked behind pick-up guidelines that have changed and changed again. Right now, I have a small stack of T-shirts, four pairs of shorts, three pairs of jeans, three jackets, three sweatshirts and two pairs of closed-toe shoes.

This comparably tiny volume of actual stuff to unpack makes it all the more ironic that unpacking for my fall has felt many times harder than it did last year. When I left Dartmouth in March, I carried home few physical possessions and a whole busload of expectations for the future. I had a spring term to enjoy, a summer to plan and a fall to anticipate. Six months later, I’m still working on unpacking the emotional baggage that came with the loss of those expectations.

Usually when I’m unpacking, it’s a process of putting everything in its place, of making the surroundings comfortable and bringing order to my space. But how can you make the end of your college experience as you know it feel comfortable? Where do you find just the right emotional box to fit the relationships that died during a global pandemic? How can you bring order to a fall term that might send all of us back home tomorrow?

Questions like these don’t have answers. It would be silly to pretend like they do, and a disservice to all of those who are grappling with the very real possibility that our lives might never go back to normal.

Instead, I learn to pack light. There is a certain freedom that comes with the loss of expectations, a strange and foreign weightlessness where there had previously been a clear vision of “The Ideal College Experience.” Every day, I miss the fall that might have been. Every day, I also get to enjoy the fall that is. I take solo walks along Lake Mascoma and FaceTime my parents and learn how to cook for myself. I text the friends I haven’t seen since winter and learn to live with not knowing when I’ll see them again.

I also drive by the Green and smile when I see people throwing frisbees, eating Foco to go and looking like normal college students except for their masked faces. It’s a reminder that there are things to come back to when I’m done traveling the country on a duffel bag and waiting for Dean Lively to let me live on campus.

It’s the reason I’m calling the Office of Residential Life tomorrow at 9 a.m. I’m going to need my winter coat if I’m going to make it through the end of the fall, and although it’s certainly not the fall I planned on having, I think it’s going to be worth sticking around for.