Zuo: Finding Home At Dartmouth
The first step to finding comfort in a place is vulnerability.
Never before had the Zuo household seen chaos like it did the week before I moved into college. In a hurricane of nervous shopping, my parents and I spent hours pouring over Dartmouth’s move-in guidelines, picking out the perfect twin XL bedding set and ordering textbooks. One by one, all of my earthly possessions were shoved into two suitcases, unpacked, added to and packed again. By the time the car was fully loaded, we had made our list, checked it twice, and then checked it a few more times just for good measure. At the end of it all, my parents — confident that I wouldn’t starve or freeze to death in my first week — finally took a step back, and there was peace in our living room again.
For me, however, the stress of the packing process was nothing in comparison to the anxious butterflies that continued to dance around my stomach. Having never been away from home before, the usual college freshman questions cluttered my head. How would the food taste? What if I hated my classes? How would I make friends? I found myself savoring moments in my home and with my family. Every last home-cooked family dinner, every ping pong game with my brother and every night in my own bed felt even more special the closer I got to that fateful day. As I turned around to get one last glance at the place where I had grown up, the butterflies hit a crescendo, filling the stomach of a boy who, for the first time, would not fall asleep in his home.
Although I would soon learn that the first step to finding a home at Dartmouth is being vulnerable and being true to who you are, it was a lesson that only became apparent to me with my first term of my freshman year in the rearview.
To my relief, the butterflies didn’t last too long. In that first week, I found a campus full of freshmen just as nervous as I was. Eager to make friends, everyone was happy to talk to everyone else. We all took turns exchanging names, prospective majors and phone numbers and with every new acquaintance, the campus, which felt overwhelmingly big when I first arrived, got a little smaller. Together with my newfound friends, I explored the campus, searching high and low for the best study spots, the best places to take naps and the best places to hang out and relax in between p-sets.
In fact, one of my first memories of college was one of those expeditions, when a group of us made a trip out to the golf course for some late-night stargazing. It was beautiful — the stars were bright against the night sky, there wasn’t artificial light for what felt like miles and miles, and while the grass was wet and dewy, I couldn’t help but lie down and smile at the smattering of brightness that shone down on my school. The part of the night that stuck with me, though, came as we turned around and decided to head back. “Let’s go home!” one of us shouted after we had finally brought our eyes back down to earth. I knew they meant East Wheelock and our individual rooms, but I couldn’t help but think about Connecticut, my family and my “real” home. Home? I thought to myself. Is this home now?
For 17 years of my life, home was wherever my parents, brother and grandma were. It was more than just a physical place; it was an emotional haven. Home meant unconditional love and support. It meant people that I knew I could lean on; people I could expect to smile with me through the good days and frown through the bad ones; and people with whom I could share the ups and downs, highs and lows, great victories and humbling defeats of my day. To put a word to this complex feeling of familiarity and trust, I would define home as the place where I felt most comfortable being myself around the people I loved the most in the world. It had always been this way. Whether it was a product of some special familial bond or the environment fostered by my parents, I always knew that I could go home and be excited, stressed, upset, perfectly content and accepted.
With my newfound friends at college, I didn’t have this same sort of familiarity, trust or comfort. After all, until about a week ago, we had been perfect strangers. More importantly, our relationships had been built around the short elevator pitch versions of ourselves — carefully selected anecdotes, a few shared experiences and assumptions to fill in the rest were all we knew of each other. Surrounded by the armor that we had built for ourselves, that first week became an exercise in showing off my shining, sparkling outer shell while protecting my innermost feelings and character.
This was not home. Instead, it was homesickness, founded on the disconnect between these two very different worlds. The comfort and security I had in my home and my family could not be more different from the self-caricature of myself that I had to maintain at my new school. The first step to letting down my caricature was being comfortable being myself. It was hard to peel back my shell and display my true colors on my sleeves, but it is also a necessary step in building a sense of home at Dartmouth. I learned that it was that initial step of allowing your friends within the hard casing of armor I had built that made it so much easier to shed the outer shell entirely. If there is anything I have learned about finding a home at Dartmouth, it is that like a hermit crab enduring momentary vulnerability in searching for a new shell, the first step to finding comfort is to be a little vulnerable. Finding friends is easy, learning the directions to your classes is easy and getting used to Foco food is easy. It is really settling in, building a circle of friends that is closer to family, and finding a home that requires the discomfort of being yourself.
There will never be any replacing the home I have with my family, but in the brief time I’ve been here at Dartmouth, I am proud to have been able to build a sort of second home with my friends here. It is the companionship and the comfortability I have with them that have made my first two terms, the stressful midterms, late-nights out, and everything in between, so much more bearable. Perhaps most comforting of it all, is the knowledge that I can head “home” and know that, for the next four years, I will mean my home here at Dartmouth College.