TTLG: Bittersweet Returns

Sarah Alpert ’21 looks back on her college experience and comes to accept the end of her time at Dartmouth, albeit with mixed emotions.

by Sarah Alpert | 6/2/21 2:15am

Source: Courtesy of Sarah Alpert

On a morning in early February of this year, I walked into Baker Library at 9:17 a.m. I entered from the west, and I paused to take in the scene. Checkered tiles receded hypnotically into space; low winter sun slanted in from the windows. Blobby was quiet, serene. I hadn’t been inside any of Dartmouth’s libraries since sophomore summer, and suddenly, I had my favorite study spot all to myself. I experienced such intense joy, coupled with such poignant grief, at returning to a place I had loved throughout my first two years at Dartmouth, that I immediately stored the memory of that moment as a quasi-religious experience. 

My reverie didn’t last long. The library opened at 10 a.m., so a librarian quickly found me, asked me how I had gotten inside and told me that I had to leave, replacing my joy with an instant fear of repercussions for my mistake. This was the first week after winter term arrival quarantine. No one was quite sure of the rules. Especially for those of us who had been away for a year and a half, every interaction, every move, was tinged with both excitement and fear.

“Especially for those of us who had been away for a year and a half, every interaction, every move, was tinged with both excitement and fear.”

That first return to the library came amid a series of many “firsts,” which weren’t really firsts at all because I was only relearning the rhythms of college that had felt so natural before COVID-19. I ran my first Rip Road five minutes after they released us from quarantine phase one; my muscles remembered the hills. My first trip to Foco was stressful; my first Woccom with a friend was strange and sweet. While walking home one evening, I remember saying aloud, “This is my first time crossing campus at night since returning,” as if even such a mundane activity was special, a privilege after so many months away.

My return to Dartmouth felt so significant partly, I think, because I had been gone longer than most. After the summer of 2019, I studied English in Dublin, spent the winter interning in New York, then went back home for most of 2020. But I also have an intense attachment to Dartmouth as a place, which made my first few weeks back in Hanover feel particularly meaningful. Even if it was winter and I had access to only a fraction of campus, I was so happy to walk across the Green and run around Occom and hike up and down the stairs of Berry, running into friends and acquaintances whom I hadn’t seen in person in over a year. 

Of course, every “first” felt significant for another reason, too. From the moment I drove into Hanover on January 17, I knew that every “first” would be followed soon by a “last.”

When I started thinking about my TTLG, I didn’t want to get sappy about COVID-19. It seemed too obvious, too trite. As a Mirror editor last year, I struggled to veer our writers away from COVID-19-related stories: How students were coping with remote classes. How sorority rush worked on Zoom. What to do about dating during a global pandemic. By fall term, COVID-19 content felt redundant and dry. Nobody wanted to read or write about the pandemic, but my co-editor and I didn’t know what else to cover, because COVID-19 had so dramatically changed life at Dartmouth.

Even if I don’t want to write about the pandemic, I feel like I have no choice. For me, and for my peers in the Class of 2021, COVID-19 has been the defining story of our college career, compressing “firsts” and “lasts” in this bizarre and abbreviated final year.

So, I suppose this is my personal iteration of the same story, my contribution to the conversation about how the pandemic changed everything.

My time at Dartmouth pre-pandemic was a fundamentally different experience, one that feels like a lifetime away. I’m a different person now. I’m older, sure, but I’m also more of an “adult.” I’ve lived in real cities, navigated relationships fraying and strengthening and learned basic skills like how to cook for myself.

Even though I have changed, my relationship with Dartmouth feels oddly the same as it always has. Except now, every emotion is heightened by the knowledge that we have so little time left — and we  have had so much less than we expected.

Two years ago, during my last truly “normal” term, I wrote about the compulsion I feel to socialize during every moment at Dartmouth. As a self-identified “social introvert,” I crave solitude but loathe the thought of people hanging out without me. I try to enjoy both alone time and social time, but Dartmouth makes it hard to strike a healthy balance. Judging by the responses I received from readers, many of my peers feel the same way.

The pandemic has made the pressure to have fun and be social feel far more extreme. These days, I can’t say “no” to anything without suffering from crippling FOMO or guilt. I can count on one hand the number of “on nights” I have stayed in this term. When I don’t have plans, and especially when I don’t have homework to fill the void where fun should occur, I feel something like an existential crisis — terror that I am wasting an opportunity to cross an activity off of my Dartmouth bucket list or to spend a special night with friends who I may not see regularly after Commencement. 

In my desperation to make the most of these last, precious months, I’ve made decisions that probably weren’t healthy or safe. I have also had the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve made up for lost time by doing something adventurous or “ragey” practically every day, but I have also remained constantly, achingly aware that each day brings us closer to the last.

“I’ve made up for lost time by doing something adventurous or 'ragey' practically every day, but I have also remained constantly, achingly aware that each day brings us closer to the last.”

What I didn’t expect when I first returned to Hanover back in January is that I’d be okay with the thought of leaving again.

As much fun as senior spring has been, it has also been exhausting. Saying “yes” is exhausting. How many nights have I stayed out past midnight, woken up before 8 a.m. to birds chattering outside my window and headed straight to Novack to work on my thesis? How many times have I agreed to one more round when I should be saving money for New York City rent? And how often have I worried that I’m hanging out with the wrong people, facing the impossible task of identifying which friendships will last after college?

The pressure of scheduling every night out, of seeking adventure and planning a perfect Senior Week, is overwhelming and, as I’m realizing now, largely pointless. The last day will come before we’re ready, regardless of how we spend our final weeks here.

More importantly, thinking in terms of “lasts” assumes a false barrier between college and the rest of our lives — a barrier which, if we’re being honest, began dissolving as soon as COVID-19 sent us home for junior spring. The pandemic forced us to learn how to keep in touch with friends living around the world, how to recreate a sense of Dartmouth community without being physically here. And when we came back, this place was still here. Some things had changed — the tables in Blobby had fewer chairs, and Foco was no longer self-serve — but for the most part, it was the same old Dartmouth. 

When we come back in future years, as alumni rather than estranged seniors, Dartmouth will always be here. 

“When we come back in future years, as alumni rather than estranged seniors, Dartmouth will always be here.”

Our lives will just take place somewhere else. I am increasingly okay with that, because I know that the world has so much to offer, and Hanover is only a tiny speck on the map. I love that speck, but I’m also ready for something more, especially now that I know I can always return.

All that said, in preparation for my last day in Hanover, I have formed a mental list of “lasts” that matter and those that don’t. 

Lasts that don’t matter include my last Molly’s marg, my last night in a frat basement and my last lecture on Zoom. My last swipe spent on an under-seasoned meal, and my last trek to Leverone to get tested for COVID-19.

Lasts that do matter: My last sunset picnic on the Green. My last lap around Occom, and the last photo I’ll take at the place where the pond opens up to the street — a personal tradition. My last early-morning bike ride around campus, and my last dip in the Connecticut River. And although I can’t picture this yet, my last bittersweet moments with the kind, loving and brilliant friends who have shared these four years with me.

Dartmouth, thank you for taking me back. This time, when I leave, I’ll go willingly, but I will always miss this place.

Alpert is a member of the Class of 2021 and a former Mirror editor of The Dartmouth.