How Dartmouth Can Humble You

A reflection on my journey from a know-it-all to your average, hard-working Dartmouth student.

by Allison Burg | 6/12/22 3:10am

by Maja Tellander / The Dartmouth

This article is featured in the 2022 Commencement & Reunions special issue.

As my freshman year concludes, nostalgia is hitting me in unexpected waves. I was taking a shower in my dorm that I will reside in for just a few more days, and it was suddenly my first night here — in that same shower — when I was unable to turn it on. Just last night, I sat at Ice Cream Fore-U with my best friends and, all at once, I was back in 21F, when I made that journey with the same girls who I barely knew at the time. Minutes ago, I rummaged through my backpack in search of statistics notes, only to find the interview questions that I wrote for my first article in this very publication. 

As I am taken back to these moments, I am reminded of who I was when I unpacked last fall. I was so unsure. I was unsure of where the dining hall was, unsure of what I wanted to study, unsure of who I would befriend — and overall unsure of myself. Yet, even with all my uncertainty and insecurity, I was also a total know-it-all.

Like a lot of us here, I had never truly failed academically before. Sure, I may have crashed my car or been excluded from a house party, but academics were always my strong suit. In high school, I was accomplished — I had achievements under my name, I had never failed a test and I had never even received the inevitable college rejection letter, as I applied and got into Dartmouth early decision. By the end of my senior year, people would congratulate me and I would thank them blindly, unsure of what I was acknowledging.

Even so, when I got here,  I was intimidated by the Dartmouth name alone — I was still in shock that I was attending an Ivy League institution. I didn’t feel like I was of that caliber; with everyone I met, I wondered what amazing thing they must have done in order to get into an Ivy. Regardless of this imposter syndrome, I was ecstatic — I was happy to be in a new environment with kind people who seemed to understand me well. As the textbook overthinker I am, I was sure I had thought up every possible excitement and worry alike. However, I had failed to consider a seemingly obvious part of college: the actual classes and work itself. 

Dartmouth is not just a prestigious name to put in an Instagram bio — it is also really challenging. Last fall, I was warned to take layups, but, again, I was a total know-it-all. I thought I wasn’t the type of person who needed to take layups their freshman fall, as I would obviously be just fine if I worked hard enough. And I did work hard. I worked really hard. I read my Math 8 textbook from cover to cover, taking meticulous notes and attending an embarrassingly large number of office hours. Yet, I failed my second midterm, I didn’t finish the final and I didn’t get an A in the class. 

That fall, I felt as if everyone around me was somehow doing it all. I didn’t want to compare myself to other people, but I couldn’t help but focus on everything I wasn’t doing in comparison. I mean, we are at Dartmouth for goodness sake — everyone here gets A’s, has unbelievable internships stacked up, takes four course terms and, all the while, balances extracurriculars, research and a social life. It’s just the culture here — and from the surface, everyone not only does it all but also gets it done with incredible ease and skill, or at least so it seems. Even as I did things I should have been incredibly proud of, with this perception of our student body, I felt as if I just couldn’t keep up.

A few weeks ago, I heard back from a summer program I applied for. I worked for days on this application, bringing up clothes from home to wear to the interview and even taking a methods class to apply. Despite this, I didn’t get it. I felt slightly defeated — I had never been rejected from an internship or job before. In a moment of vulnerability, sitting on my hallmate’s floor, I brought up this rejection to my friends, who all fit into this Dartmouth stereotype of somehow managing everything.

Well, or so I thought. My one friend who was their high school’s valedictorian and does everything so effortlessly? They were struggling a lot in their QSS class. My other friend who is a whiz at government and willingly studies in the stacks? They didn’t get into debate. My friend with the insane research job for this summer? They sent fifty emails to get a research position and got one response. To my surprise, my friends thought I was the one that was able to do everything. All this time, I was so caught up in thinking that everyone was effortlessly perfect that I forgot that none of us are machines. We are all going to fail tests, get rejected from internships and make a ton of mistakes. That’s what college is all about.

Being at a college like Dartmouth, with its prestige and fame, it is very easy to forget that everyone, myself and my peers included, are still just students trying to learn. Learning that we are not expected to do everything right. Learning that it is okay and expected to fail. And fail again. And fail some more. 

As a freshman, I spent quite some time focusing on my setbacks before realizing that they weren’t actually shortcomings. Yes, my math class certainly humbled me, but I also learned differential equations and how to study more effectively. My internship application left me disappointed, but also with a much stronger resume, and I love my methods course. And when I finally did get the good grade in a STEM class — something I never thought twice about in high school — it felt all the sweeter. I’ve had to work a lot harder than I ever have before and, although it doesn't always pay off in the way I want it to, I have learned a lot in the process. 

As I think back to that girl who scribbled down those interview questions for my first article, I remember specifically picking to write an interview-based piece because a reflection seemed daunting. How could I reflect when I barely knew myself? Well, the truth is I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, or who I will be friends with down the road, or admittedly how to get to the Co-op — but I am certainly not the girl I once was. This past year, I have learned Java data structures, policy implementation, how to play pong and how to rollerblade. Most importantly, even at this big-name school, I have learned that I am going to fail, and so will everyone else. But — you know what — we’re going to succeed, too. Dartmouth has humbled me, and I am grateful.

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