This article is featured in the 2022 Freshman special issue.
It’s approximately 4:30 a.m. and I wake up covered in a thin layer of sweat, a familiar hallmark of my summer abroad. For the past eight weeks, I have been living 4,679 miles away from home in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, while participating in a language study abroad program. And I can say, without a doubt in my mind, that this has been the strangest summer of my life.
“Challenging, but rewarding,” is the response I give to my friends and family when they ask how my time abroad is going. While I didn’t come into this trip thinking it was going to be a walk in the park, there have been plenty of challenges I didn’t anticipate either. Although I am here studying Arabic, I fumble with my words as I bargain with local vendors because most of them only speak the local dialect, Darija, whilst I am trained to speak in Modern Standard Arabic — and the two vary almost as much as different Romance languages. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget the overwhelming sense of exhaustion I always feel pushing my way from one side of the city’s overcrowded market to the next in the summer heat. I also got food poisoning once, which was just about as great as it sounds.
On the days when the unfamiliarity gets too overwhelming, the barrier between language and dialect feels too defeating and the temperature grows too hot, I question why I decided to come to Morocco. Although feelings of homesickness, isolation and frustration are fleeting, they pile up quickly. Still, despite the discomfort and confusion that accompanies integrating into a new place, I love it here.
Funnily enough, I have come to realize that the last time I felt this out of place was a little under a year ago, during those early weeks of September 2021 as I navigated my new home in Hanover.
Just like this past summer spent abroad, I would be lying if I told you that freshman year was easy. This is not to say college isn’t fun a lot of the time; however, many people come into college thinking that, after 18 years of existence, they’re going to find their perfect “place” in the span of one or two weeks. I was one of those people. Throughout high school, I was well-liked by my classmates, had plenty of friends and felt secure in my academics and clubs, but I didn’t necessarily feel like I had a singular “place.” I was optimistic that college would change that.
When I returned home from fall term I felt almost as lost as when I had started college several months before. I had a group of friends, but we never got that close. In my free time, I lightly involved myself in some clubs, yet nothing seemed to stick. I was more than happy with my grades, but none of my classes interested me all that much. I had a short romance with a boy that fizzled out — and then revived itself, and then fizzled out again — as so many freshman pairings do. In short, at the end of winterim, I did not have as strong a desire to return to campus as I believed many of my peers did –– I still felt deeply out of place.
Okay, but this isn’t a “let’s all pity fall-term-Tess” story. Now comes the part where I tell you it gets better.
I won’t pretend like my world changed during winter term, but the moment I stepped off the Dartmouth Coach from Boston Logan in early January 2022, I was warmly welcomed by a distant friend, who later became my best friend. A perfect start to 22W, and a good representation of how the rest of that term went: new connections among people I now consider some of my closest friends, and most importantly, it was a definite improvement from the previous term. But to be honest, even a year later I couldn’t tell you that I’ve found my “place” here on campus. Going into my sophomore year, I’m more involved in campus activities than I’ve ever been; I have a wide range of friends, as well as a smaller, distinct friend group and I’ve relatively narrowed down my academic interests — just please don’t ask me what my major is. Still, I’d be hard pressed to consider any one of these qualities as a defining signifier of my role on campus.
This lack — if you can even call it that — of place does not bring the dread it did during my first break from Dartmouth. To be honest, I’ve learned that finding your “place” in college has less to do with finding a certain space and more about finding yourself.
When reflecting on this summer spent in Morocco and the rest of my freshman year, there is a common thread between them both: I had to embrace the challenge and struggle that accompanied being completely uprooted from what I was familiar with. I have probably learned more about myself in these past 12 months than I have in the rest of my life because it was the first time I had to deal with adult-sized problems on my own. This self-discovery is why I look back on freshman year so fondly, and is also why I love Morocco — not despite the struggle of finding myself, but because of it.
Through every difficulty I faced my freshman year of college, I learned something new about myself. When I woke up at 6 a.m. to finish an essay for HUM 1, “Dialogues with the Classics,” due just a few short hours later, I discovered that I tend to use every minute up until a deadline to make whatever I am working on as perfect as I can in the time I have. After my first fling in college, I realized that I would rather be alone than be with someone I didn’t feel intensely about. In Morocco, when I converse in Arabic, I am reminded of the B- I got on my first test, but also of how much I have since persisted with the language because it enthralls me so much. And my short, failed career as a coxswain proved to me that I was simply not a morning person, no matter how cool being a student-athlete sounds.
Knowing more about who I am has made it easier for me to explore different possibilities and places within my life because, despite the uncertainty, I am always sure of myself.
But maybe this is all bullshit, to put it lightly. After many nights struggling through papers in various humanities classes, I’ve realized that one of my greatest strengths is my ability to rationalize just about anything, and this could just be one long defense of my inner desire to get myself in tricky situations to keep my life interesting. But I like to think it’s not all smoke and mirrors. I like to think that even the most boring or facetime-y person you’ve ever met is still too nuanced for a single, physical place.
My advice to freshmen, or any person from any class: Make mistakes while you can and use them to learn about yourself, rather than spending your time trying to find a place that doesn’t exist. College is the last time in your life when you can screw up in a mostly controlled environment and gain something quite valuable from it. Ultimately, the more confident you are in who you are, the easier it is for you to exist anywhere — no matter if you’re in the woods of New Hampshire or the desert of Morocco.