Lane: Go Your Own Way

Dartmouth yields plenty of opportunities. But don’t be afraid to make your own path.

by Thomas Lane | 8/31/22 4:20am

This article is featured in the 2022 Freshman special issue.

It’s true that Dartmouth is the smallest of all Ivy League schools. We have only about 4,000 undergraduate students — quite small in the grand scheme of things. But we still pack quite the punch. In spite of our size, we have an endowment of $8.5 billion, world-class students and faculty, a medical school, an engineering school, a business school, a public health school and graduate programs in many other fields. For most students, whatever it is you want to do, you can do it here. But that’s not true for everyone. Don’t let yourself unwittingly rule out options you might like just because they don't neatly fit into what Dartmouth offers.

I’ll illustrate this with a personal example. I came to Dartmouth interested in government as a potential career path. With the pandemic raging, I had a hunch I wanted to try out public health. The previous summer, on my mother’s encouragement, I’d sent out my first cold email to someone I’d never met. It got me volunteering on a state senate campaign in my hometown by helping the candidate do research for her policy positions. I got a lot out of it despite being totally in over my head at first. There wasn’t much I (or anyone) could predict about the future implications of the COVID-19 pandemic back in summer 2020, although I gave it my best shot. What ended up being more important was that I found I really loved diving into not just the issues of the day, but the solutions too. When you find something you like doing, don’t forget it, even if you’re met with discouragement at Dartmouth. 

During my freshman fall, I got rejected from a Dartmouth-sponsored summer program. I thought it was right up my alley, and at the time I was really bummed. Instead, I was stuck sending another cold email to someone I had never met. It turned out even better than I could have imagined. Not only did I get to have a fairly relaxed summer to recover from my first year, but I secured a policy research stint for my state representative and ended up even writing a few bills alongside my research! A cleaned-up version of one of them, a maternal and infant health improvement program, was almost passed into law the following session. Nobody in the program I hadn’t gotten into was doing anything like that. Because the Dartmouth program had rejected me, I was grudgingly forced to find my own path. My success wasn’t because I was impeccably qualified either. I had next to nothing to my name at the time. I got to do it simply because I showed up and asked. Cold emails are your best friend. You have nothing to lose by hitting send. If the person you ask says no or doesn't respond, you end up in exactly the same spot as if you hadn’t asked.

That same summer, upon hearing I was working for our state representative, one of my mother’s friends introduced me to a friend of hers: A retired doctor and professor who also happened to be a leading figure in my state’s health policy advocacy scene. His organization had a summer educational program for medical students to teach them about health policy topics. After meeting him for coffee — and an extremely technical policy discussion I was definitely not prepared for nor expecting — I was invited to attend. I was initially terrified because I knew I was nowhere near the experience level of the others who would be there. But after I got over my hesitancy I soon enough was doing Zoom book club with a bunch of medical students. It turned out to be a highlight of my summer.

There are two lessons here. First, make use of your friends and family, especially if they are retired professionals who have (and this is the crucial part) both connections and the time to talk to you. People love lecturing you about themselves and their careers. I’m doing exactly that myself right now. However, when people do so they often will also give you nuggets of good advice — which is what you really need — while they’re at it. Second, don’t be afraid to be the least qualified person in the room. If you remember your manners and take the opportunities you find seriously, you’ll learn more than you could ever imagine when you first showed up. When you join a new group, nobody expects you to run the show right off the bat. In fact, people usually find that off putting. Use that to your advantage to soak up the learning and prepare yourself for when you can truly contribute at the level they expect. You’ll get there faster than you might expect.

The next school year, I got myself rejected from not just one more but two more Dartmouth programs I thought would have been great for me. Again, I was disappointed. I really needed something to do during an upcoming off term. I ended up sending a few more cold emails and ended up with a great opportunity where I learned a ton — more than I ever would have learned in a term of classes, frankly. After a term of working for them they liked me so much that they even put me on their group’s executive board one day out of the blue. I’m still not convinced I’m qualified for that one. Regardless, you should get the point by now. Being able to do cool things, whatever that may be in your mind, is often not a function of having fancy credentials, but rather a question of if you show up and ask when and where no one else does. Don’t be afraid to do so. You’ve got nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

As you start off your Dartmouth career, don’t be afraid to do your own thing. There are a few well-traveled career and academic paths that a large number of students here take. These are often quite lucrative, but from my experience, most people don’t pursue these options out of passion but rather because they think they are expected to or will lose out if they don’t. Don’t do that to yourself. Do what you actually want to do. And if you don’t yet know what it is you want to do, don’t worry. There’s no good answer I can give to that, but I can say that you’ll know when you inevitably find it. Best of luck to you, Class of 2026.

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