Solenne Wolfe ’24 reflects on how a year-delayed Twilight Ceremony could not create the impact it intended.
One of the hallmarks of orientation week for a typical Dartmouth freshman is the matriculation ceremony — by shaking the President of the College’s hand, the untethered former high school senior becomes a Dartmouth student and crosses the threshold into a formative four years in the Granite State. The matriculation ceremony poses a particular risk in the era of COVID-19; thus, in lieu of last year’s typical matriculation ceremony, members of the Class of 2024 were given glow sticks to crack while alone in their rooms during their third day of a 14-day quarantine. The light was meant to mimic the light of the Twilight Ceremony, in which the entire class of incoming freshmen walk into the woods near the College holding a candle — but, scattered across hundreds of isolated dorm rooms, it couldn’t compete with the real thing. There is something special about the complete openness to new experiences, being with and for others and walking into the wilderness — experiences that the real Twilight Ceremony seems to symbolize.
On Sunday, nearly a year after the now-sophomores had their first days on campus, the College held a matriculation ceremony for them. Students dressed up in formal attire and listened to College President Phil Hanlon share remarks officially welcoming them to the College. Afterwards, student leaders spoke outside Collis. The day continued with a year-late Twilight Ceremony — this time, including the procession of lit candles toward BEMA. Starting college in the pandemic was unusual in almost every way — but most of these differences have only become visible now, upon students’ return. Most other ’24s I’ve spoken to describe feeling as though the ceremony was confusing and a bit strange — though students are usually unsure about how effective this unique and supposedly unifying tradition is in a normal year, the awkward timing of the ceremony for the ’24s muddied its true purpose even more.
As the return to classrooms marks the sophomores’ first experience with academic spaces on campus, there is still so much of the College that is new to us. Navigating the maze of each new building is daunting and dealing with the new crowds is anxiety-inducing. The Class of 1953 Commons’s capacity has increased substantially. There is no great time to eat, as each dining hall wrestles with unbelievably long lines throughout the day. Despite the hectic campus, ’24s have begun to settle into the day-to-day routines of a college student. Some of the initial shocks of “normal” life on campus, however, have been softened by the fact that most sophomores spent at least some time on campus last year. This made it feel strange to attend a ceremony centered on learning how to “become” a Dartmouth student when many of us already have a favorite meal, study spot or semblance of a major. The feeling of familiarity — at least with certain pockets of the day — is a welcome antidote after a year of feeling constantly unsteady. And after the shock of immense tragedies, there is comfort in knowing who you can rely on when things hit the fan, when your emotional walls break down and you find yourself needing the support of others.
The crowd at the ceremony reflected the changed nature of social life; most students stood in groups with their friends, dressed in matriculation-wear coordinated in many a group chat. This difference in sentiment surrounding the ceremony mirrors the difference in its meaning. Going into the woods with strangers who will soon become your classmates, roommates and friends is meant to be a bonding experience. The electricity of anticipation crackles over the candles. Yet, for the ’24s in this year’s ceremony, there was little to no real anticipation — we knew who we would be going with, who we would likely see and likely had plans with later in the evening. In the Instagram photos of matriculation, friends stood with friends and smiled — “matricu-LATE!”
The ceremony itself was underwhelming. Through no fault of the organizers or speakers, the microphone seemed weak. It was difficult to tell until a few minutes into one speech that there was even a speech going on. At one moment, the speaker called for a moment of silence for the classmates that Dartmouth, and in particular the Class of 2024, had lost during the past year. Unable to hear over the din of a confused crowd, speaking continued over the proposed moment of silence. After the ceremony, it seemed like most people hadn’t realized that there was even a moment of silence announced.
In a perfectly fitting way, the ceremony was an attempt to fulfill a loss that hadn’t been realized until now. Like the other elements of a typical Dartmouth experience, the ceremony was part of freshman year that this year’s sophomores may not have realized they had missed until it came back. Fittingly, the matriculation and ceremony felt disappointing, almost an attempt to grapple with the emotional chaos that the past year has brought without much success. Perhaps the truth is that the everyday ceremonies that we engage in — breaking bread (albeit in a crowded dining hall) with friends, the almost-fall late afternoon sunshine at the river, laughter at inside jokes with your roommate about the broken parts of the room — are far more important than any one College-sponsored event. The little freedoms that we are now entitled to can be liberating in deep ways if we express gratitude rather than hoping that any one event will create a feeling of belonging. After all, the sense of closeness and community that college campuses are known for is made up of our individual relationships to the place, each other and our changing selves.