Learning to Love the Liminality
One Mirror writer reflects on her first term at Dartmouth and the challenges that have accompanied it.
During my second week of college, I found myself lying in a dentist’s chair in West Lebanon, clutching the nurse’s hand and regretting my decision to attend school many hours from home. When I thought about my ideal college experience, developing a mouth infection that necessitated emergency surgery definitely wasn’t what I envisioned. Yet, this experience encapsulates a unifying theme from my first term at Dartmouth — the need to grow comfortable with uncertainty, whether that arises in the form of surprise dentist appointments or other, less medically exigent, challenges.
My first feelings of uncertainty arose mere days after arriving on campus. At first, I was overjoyed by the lack of structured time. During my last semester of high school, I severely overscheduled myself, and often felt as though I was constantly running from one commitment to another with no time to breathe. For my first few days at Dartmouth, I was thrilled to have fewer scheduled activities, and relished the chance to take breaks during the day and sleep for more than four hours a night. However, I quickly realized that I thrive on certainty, on outlining exactly what my days, weeks and even months will look like. I began to long for the rigid structure of high school that had forced me to utilize every moment of time productively, and resented how the sheer lack of structure in college allowed me to fritter away countless hours without scarcely a second thought.
Furthermore, the overwhelmingly large number of activities that I could partake in led me to feel lost when trying to decide how to spend my time. When I attended the club fair at the beginning of the term, I was nearly stunned into silence by the multitude of opportunities; I wrote my name down on far too many email lists and joined an excess of GroupMe chats. This problem only worsened when it came time to choose classes for fall term; within seconds of opening the timetable, I was floored by the number of courses offered. The seemingly endless possibilities for not only clubs, but classes, majors and even off terms has generated considerable uncertainty about my time at Dartmouth. At the beginning of the term, I conquered this difficulty by promising myself that I would carve out time in the subsequent weeks to reflect on the opportunities available at this school; I told myself that I would return home for winterim with a plan in place for what clubs I wanted to join and what my major might be.
I fly home in a week and have failed to keep this promise. Rather than having a concrete plan for how the next four years will unfold, I’ll be returning to Indiana with more questions than answers. The ten weeks of this term seem to have flown by; I’ve rarely been able to make time for introspection, as I’m often too busy completing assignments to ponder what my future might hold.
Slowly, I’ve begun to reconcile myself to this uncertainty in both my daily routine and my four-year plan. I’ve found comfort in scheduling out certain parts of my day; each week, I look forward to my Tuesday night long runs, Thursday afternoon lunches and Sunday evening phone calls with my family. Yet, I’ve also learned to say yes to unexpected moments, even if they deviate from my carefully planned schedule; after all, some of my fondest memories from this term have arisen out of spontaneous decisions to play spikeball, take a walk around Occom or lie on the Green and bask in the sun. Now, rather than pining for the uncompromising structure of high school, I revel in the fact that my days are no longer demarcated by bells that compel me to change classes; rather, I have the freedom to choose how to structure my time. And as for my four-year plan, I’ve accepted that I don’t have to have it all figured out by the end of my first term; after all, I still have fifteen terms left to create my ideal Dartmouth experience.
Despite the challenges I’ve faced with choosing clubs and crafting a schedule, my most profound experience with uncertainty has arisen as I’ve battled my fear of changing during college. Before coming to Dartmouth, I rejected the idea that these four years might make me into a different person. During high school, I carefully cultivated my self-image; by senior year, I felt like I had finally become the person I’d wanted to be since I was 15. As my time in high school wound down, I thought I had it all figured out; I couldn’t imagine regressing to the feelings of uncertainty that I’d felt four years before when I first contemplated what I wanted out of my high school experience.
When I arrived at Dartmouth, I wanted to retain the sense of self that I’d carried with me throughout senior year — my deepest fear was that I would return home at the end of the term and no longer recognize myself. But over the course of the term, I’ve learned to accept both that change is inevitable, and that it is not always negative. There is no question that I will return home different than when I left; after all, this term, I’ve run on the Appalachian Trail, learned how to play lacrosse and swam across state lines, all experiences that I never even conceived of having when I still lived in Indiana.
Now, I’m growing to love having the chance to remake myself; it’s comforting to know that I still possess the ability to change, that I won’t forever exist as the flawed seventeen-year-old who I was during high school. Though I thought I was self-actualized at the end of high school, I can’t wait to see who I’ll become by the end of my time at Dartmouth.
I have no idea what winter term has in store for me. My experiences this fall have taught me that the next ten weeks will surely present me with obstacles that I currently can’t even conceive of, though I’m hoping these don’t include another emergency trip to the dentist. Two months ago, if you had told me that I’d be returning to Hanover in January with no plan in place for the coming term, aside from a list of the classes I’m enrolled in, I would have been filled with anxiety. Now, though, I’m learning to love the uncertainty; instead of worrying about what might happen, I’m trying to celebrate the fact that I have no idea what these next four years will bring.