This article is featured in the 2022 Commencement & Reunions special issue.
I remember the first time I visited Dartmouth. It was a random Monday in February, and the air was brisk, nipping at my face as I walked across campus. It was a couple of days before my 16th birthday, and I had just finished visiting a number of other colleges. Dartmouth was the only one that still had piles of snow on the ground, though on that particular day the sun was out, beckoning. I turned to my family, making an off-hand joke that we had brought the sun up with us on this visit, and we watched as the light glinted off of the windows of Baker-Berry. The sunshine bouncing off of the pure, powdery snow seemed to bring the campus to life, instilling a vigor and energy into the air.
Despite the cold, the campus was distinctly alive. Everywhere I looked, the campus declared its presence. The students, in particular, radiated energy, and I watched as they threw snowballs and pushed one another into the mounds of snow that lined the campus. They were everywhere, ducking in and out of buildings, eager to escape the cold. As they walked, they laughed, teasing and swearing at one another. They were the living and breathing heart of Dartmouth, the very source of its vitality. After all, our campus without its soundtrack of playful shouts across the Green and the ensuing laughter would be a very dead one indeed.
It isn’t lost on me that I am now one of the students that I had seen all of those years earlier. In fact, I can almost see the anxiety and longing in the eyes of the prospective students and parents as they pass by on a tour, watching as I study underneath the historic Orozco murals. They’re trying to glean what I wished to all of those years ago — what is it that makes Dartmouth, well, Dartmouth?
Sometimes I wish I could answer the question in their eyes, although I’m not quite sure that I would be able to. I could give them the canned, superficial answer that we’re a school of great integrity, with superior academics and athletics, all housed under the sublime backdrop of Mother Nature. And though this is undoubtedly true, it could never begin to capture all that it means to be at Dartmouth. It would gloss over the little moments — the long nights spent in the library, and the even longer ones spent on frat row.
So once again I’ll ask: what makes Dartmouth all that it is? Could I even answer that question? Could you? Our answers would be different –– after all, no two Dartmouth experiences are ever exactly the same. I’m convinced, though, that there’s something that unites them all. For a school that is still so deeply intertwined with the ways of the past, there must be something that is shared between us — something passed down from one generation to the next.
Whenever I look at pictures of Dartmouth from the past, I’m struck by how much has seemingly changed — and just how much simply hasn’t. The buildings, for one, were here long before us, and they will be here long after. If only these walls could whisper, for truly they’ve seen it all. They’ve watched on, listening for 250 years to the trials and tribulations of students, and have stood tall and strong as wars — both cold and hot — have ravaged the world outside of Hanover. At their core, even the students were the same. I’ve seen pictures of students from the ’80s as they, like us, walked around in shirts emblazoned with Greek letters and played pong with handle-less paddles.
Not much has changed, and yet, everything has. The pandemic has altered not only the world as we know it, but also Dartmouth as we know it. A culture survives by perpetuating itself in the next generation, but this was an opportunity that was taken from the current student population. Of the four grades on campus, the ’22s, ’23s, ’24s and ’25s, only one of them got to know the Dartmouth that generations of students have known and loved — the “normal” Dartmouth. Until this spring, the Class of 2022 was the only class of the four here now to enjoy all four of Dartmouth’s seasons — and the challenges and delights that come with each.
What followed March 2020 was a mess, with everyone spread out around the world taking online classes, enduring hybrid living and often intense isolation. These were the defining characteristics of the past few years, ones spent in a perpetual limbo with the threat of catching an unknown virus, or being sent home, constantly lurking overhead. It is hard — impossible even — to build a life on that kind of uncertainty. After all, aren’t we meant to “find ourselves” in college — usually under the guidance of the upperclassmen who seem to have already found their way? But that wasn’t possible under such conditions, and so we went, year after year, without learning the traditions that defined the classic Dartmouth experience. The only things we had to go off of were the scattered remnants of the ’22s freshman year. Even now as I look back upon my first year here, I can’t help but notice how all of my memories are tinged with a sense of fragility, or of the understanding that it could all be taken from us at any moment. This year was one of urgency, of living as though each moment was the last — and making up for lost time.
But the world keeps turning, and we’ve adapted to this new Dartmouth. As we begin to rebuild, we should be aware of this unique opportunity that has been presented to us. Perhaps in the turmoil of the past few years, there have been some traditions that have been lost to the wind. But very rarely is there ever destruction without creation to balance it. The loss of the old traditions only make way for the creation of new ones. We’ve been given an opportunity to shape the Dartmouth that we hope to see — and it begins now with what we do and what we say. One of my friends, Adam Tobeck, once mused that we were all just “adding to the vast history of those that came before us.” So we are, our every moment weaving together with others’ to add to a story that will long outlive us. Personally, I find that rather beautiful.