This article is featured in the 2022 Commencement & Reunions special issue.
I’ve got just over a week here until graduation and I’m sitting in the 1902 Room in Baker-Berry, thinking about a lot of things. I glance away from the list of ideas for this reflection I've been mulling over for hours and I scan the room. My eyes come to rest on the paintings of former College deans that decorate the muted yellow walls. Their faces are interesting — some look tired, pensive; others serious and intimidating. Some seem hopeful, too. I imagine them turning in their picture frames, looking right at me, clearing their dusty throats to tell me something. But what? What do I want to hear from them?
“Congratulations, you made it”?
No, that’s not quite it. I squint and look closer.
“You’re doing great”?
Gah. I turn away, and peer through the south window, which faces Sanborn Library. I can see the dimly lit alcoves and warm green chairs. The view elicits a sharp feeling of nostalgia — the kind that makes me swallow and feel a bit sad, though I’m not sure exactly what I am sad about.
If you knew me freshman year, you’d know that Sanborn was my place. I was practically a squatter — claiming Alcove III right after morning classes and sitting until dinnertime, occasionally walking through 1902 on my way to KAF for a bathroom break or coffee run. These paintings have looked over students for centuries — they saw me then, and they see me now. I’m sure they’re whispering about how different I look — how differently I walk, dress, speak even. I guess that’s what’s making me feel sad.
If you knew me freshman year, you’d know that I’ve changed a lot. I’ve had freshman year professors walk by me without recognizing me and acquaintances forget they met me. If I could try to sum my freshman year self up in a single word, it would be disciplined. I was exceptionally, triumphantly, unfailingly disciplined — even when it led to harm. The most obvious was the way I treated my body. Freshman year was the year I starved myself. The worst part was just how good I was at it — denying myself and my body the nutrition it so desperately needed. Exercising to depletion; entering each meal on the brink of exhaustion, filling myself up just enough to stay upright. And always cold. So cold.
That winter was the hardest period of my life. And I don't mean academically; my disciplined demeanor meant that I was always at least two weeks ahead of most of my readings, studying before the professor would even announce an exam. But it was the coldest winter of my life.
What they don’t tell you about being grossly underweight is that your body becomes desperately inadequate. I lost the ability to feel and maintain warmth — a sensation exacerbated by frigid Hanover winters. Looking into the window of Sanborn, I remember my ritualized exit from the library into the wintery night — not leaving until I had a cup of warm tea in my hand, covering my body in layers of sweaters and literally bracing myself before stepping outside. I can still feel it, even now: the angry cold air piercing my skin and filling up all the interior cavities of my insides with a vengeance, as if to say: “This is your fault. You did this to yourself.”
I don’t need to drag you along this horrible scene much longer. You get the gist. Fast forward a few years, I’m no longer at war with my body, and can, thankfully, retain warmth. I’ve even begun to love the winters — in an ironic twist due to COVID-19, winter is the only term I've been on campus for all four years.
There are a lot of things that helped catalyze this change: Realizing that my loving mother was genuinely afraid for me and my health shocked me back to reality, disconnecting from certain family members who made my life feel unstable and unsafe and finding generous and loving friends. Obviously, those are all oversimplifications, but I think above all, once I chose to pursue happiness as fiercely as I had chosen discipline, things began to fall into place.
I did not plan on divulging all of these memories in this reflection. But it feels right. Necessary, even. Freshman year was the year that I lost myself. And this would not be an honest reflection if I did not mention it. But through the process of reclaiming my identity, I fell in love with this absurdly beautiful, challenging school. And, in turn, she helped me to love myself.
I’m no longer a person categorized by discipline. One could say I’m even a bit messy. My senior spring has been the pinnacle representation of this newfound sense of self. I have made fantastically impulsive decisions — participating in the senior tradition of daily river dips, reading original poetry at Lingerie, even writing very personal and emotional reflections for Mirror — all of which have been more meaningful to me than I have yet to acknowledge. In many ways, I am like my high school self again — surrounded by people I love and who love me back, focused on my academics, but more so for the sake of learning than grades, funny, silly and a little bit reckless.
If our lives are defined by great love affairs, Dartmouth is certainly one of mine. She has housed and (yes) fed me through so many stages of life these past four years — and I’ve seen her grow and change alongside me. I love her trees and how they bloom, change colors, get covered by snow and then regrow in the springtime; how she looks when I gaze at her from across the Green on a dark, hazy night; the rhythm of her terms; the energy within the walls of her library. I’ve felt exceptional cold here, but I’ve also experienced profound warmth — warmth that I initially created by myself out of sheer will, but which is now supported by my friends, my professors and the College herself.
If Dartmouth is one of my great loves, she has certainly been my most tumultuous relationship. She’s made me feel unwanted, undeserving and at times, so lonely — whether that was the result of getting rejected by too many clubs to count, feeling out of place in Greek spaces or just being generally trapped in Hanover, a place that is very difficult to escape. But the thing about Dartmouth is that she will never give up on you if you don’t give up on her. Her resources, her people, the land she sits on, are there for all who are lucky enough to call themselves her students. As our motto reads: “Vox clamantis in deserto” — a voice of one crying in the wilderness. Cry, and she will listen. Help will come to those who seek it, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways.
I’m still sitting in 1902; the hum of studying students fades to the background and I feel like I am the only person on this campus. I imagine these walls are listening to my thoughts and that I am listening to theirs too.
I realize that these paintings, with their paternal presence, have protected me all along. They, as well as students and professors of the past and present, comprise a community and a history to which I will be forever linked. Now I can hear it clearly, what I want those visages to tell me.
“We love you.”
They tell me that they’ve loved me this whole time, even when I didn’t love myself. They tell me to forgive myself, to revel in who I have become and not linger on who I was. They tell me that these walls will always be here to house me and my thoughts, regardless of whether I am a student or not. They tell me to live the life they've heard me think of and seen me write about. They tell me I'm ready.
I am ready.
And I love you too.
Novi Zhukovsky is a former Mirror Editor of The Dartmouth and a member of the Class of 2022.