Allen: Is Dartmouth a Welcome Home?

The College must do more to create a welcome campus for all students.

by Spencer Allen | 10/8/21 4:15am

by Zooriel Tan / The Dartmouth

This article is featured in the 2021 Homecoming special issue.

“Welcome home” is one of the most recited phrases first-year students at Dartmouth hear. From their acceptance and First-Year Trips to orientation and beyond, these two words contextualize a student’s transition to, and time at, Dartmouth. This phrase encourages students to take comfort in Dartmouth and to consider their peers and the broader Dartmouth community like a chosen family. The phrase has a special importance this weekend as we celebrate Homecoming — a time when all those who consider the College home converge upon Hanover to celebrate in unity.

But is Dartmouth so deserving of being called home?

Of course, there are many students for whom Dartmouth is unequivocally a home: a place where they feel emotionally safe, where they can return to in times of need. While no single group is a monolith, I can imagine that many of the students who identify as cisgender, heterosexual, affluent white men exist at the College with ease; after all, Dartmouth was built to support them. I can also imagine that many of those students whose parents attended Dartmouth — legacy students who were tied to Dartmouth before they could walk — similarly feel at home here.

Most students don’t fit these molds, however. That’s not to say that Dartmouth cannot be a home for them, but the College does have to work harder to make space for students whose place here is not a given.

And, far too often, it doesn’t.

For example, let’s think about first-generation, low-income students. As a high-status institution, the College has a “hidden curriculum” — a term scholars use to describe the social rules like how to dress or how to talk to professors which non-FGLI students tend to know — that FGLI students must pick up on after coming to Dartmouth. These hidden, informal regulations often lead to missteps for FGLI students when interacting with the non-FGLI students who are privy to these rules.

The First Year Student Enrichment Program helps FGLI students learn Dartmouth’s hidden curriculum and navigate the social and academic spaces that exist here. Originally founded in 2009, FYSEP has provided a space of comfort for hundreds of students in the last 12 years — including me and my closest friends. The program builds such a strong community through its pre-orientation program for first-year students and its continued support system as students proceed through Dartmouth.

However, having this community on campus can only do so much. We collectively still struggle to get our footing at Dartmouth; the cliché “fake it ‘til you make it” is ripe with truth for us as we dart between the web of social structures that impede our learning and socializing. However, a home is not a place to “fake” any part of yourself in exchange for feeling accepted. Within FYSEP, many of us feel an instant connection to someone once we learn that they too are a FYSEP student, and we feel free to be authentically ourselves with those new connections. However, those same instantaneous connections often fail to materialize when we interact with students with no connection to FYSEP.

Dartmouth’s self-proclaimed sense of homeliness also evades many queer students. In relatively recent memory, Dartmouth hasn’t exactly been the most welcoming place for queer students. Arguably the most notable example of queer students being subjected to a hostile campus environment comes from 1984, when a reporter from The Dartmouth Review invaded a secret meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Sent by none other than Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham ’85, The Review’s Editor-in-Chief at the time, The Review published transcripts from that meeting — outing closeted gay students in the process. Though the College was not itself involved in The Review’s actions, Dartmouth did not appear to take action against the paper either.

We — queer people and our allies alike — would like to think that a similar situation would not play out today. It’s true that, unlike in the 1980s, there are many spaces on campus for us to feel safe in — from the Triangle House dorm to gender inclusive Greek spaces to undergraduate societies. It’s also true that many more students are out on campus — if not also in their off-campus life — than 40 years ago.

And yet our safety on this campus is still not a given. Just last term, after I wrote an article encouraging students to wear masks, an anonymous Librex user posted a personal critique with what is implied to be a homophobic slur. While the user did censor themselves, the phrase, “what’s good w the f word that wrote the article in support of masks in the D,” grammatically speaking, can only mean so many things. This, however, was just a one-time incident for me that occurred anonymously: Many fellow queer students have experienced a broad gamut of discriminatory incidents, including persistent misgendering by professors and peers and, in the case of several friends, public sexual harassment.

I share these facets of Dartmouth — being FGLI and being queer — because these are identities that I hold as a student here. Being poor and gay — both together and separate — complicate my ability to find a home at Dartmouth. I have found spaces at Dartmouth that I feel comfortable in, but those are defined by people who share some of my identities or who can empathize with them. Those spaces, by and large, are separate from the idea of universal homeliness the College aspires to obtain.

I also recognize that these examples are not comprehensive of all the struggles Dartmouth students face. As a cisgender white man, it is still relatively easy for me to exist at Dartmouth without a second thought. Students who are people of color, women, transgender and/or nonbinary — as well as many others who fit into groups I did not mention — all face their own set of struggles to fit into the strict molds that Dartmouth has set in place.

There are also plenty of queer and FGLI students whose experiences at Dartmouth are, on the whole, quite positive. I commend those students for their positive experiences. But I caution that, while I do not mean to invalidate the good times queer and FGLI students have — because we all have them — those happy times should not invalidate the negatives, either. Even with the positive interactions I have had, I struggled — and still struggle — to learn how to be an Ivy League student or to recover from being called a slur.

It is possible for students from marginalized backgrounds to find home on campus, but that is not because campus is a home itself. For a space to be a home, someone must be able to live there authentically, without the fear or expectation of harmful repercussions. There are many individual spaces that function as homes for different groups of students. But those miniature homes exist because the students within them find one another, not because Dartmouth makes a concerted effort to encourage their formation.

So, to answer the question that I posed earlier: No, the College does not deserve to be called a “home.”

At least not in its current form.

Dartmouth’s homeliness is not necessarily a lost cause. Right now, this weekend, there are hundreds if not thousands of alumni who have converged from all over the world to celebrate the fact that, to them, Dartmouth is home. To those alumni who have picked up this special issue, I call upon each and every one of you to reflect on what it is about this place that made you come back. In doing so, I urge you to consider what about Dartmouth makes this school more hostile to some students or alumni — including some of your classmates and peers. However, reflection alone will not solve most of the problems I outlined in this piece. Rather, for Dartmouth to be a truly welcome home for all students, every person who cares about our campus must choose to prioritize this chosen family and be dedicated to making this campus a safe and welcoming space for everyone.

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