When the Bubble Pops

A look back at freshman fall, through the eyes of a senior.

by Caris White | 8/31/22 3:30am

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by Zooriel Tan / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

This article is featured in the 2022 Freshman special issue.

Almost anyone can tell you there is so much you don’t know coming into Dartmouth. There are pages and pages on The D’s website teeming with advice from current students and past grads. This special issue, after all, is dedicated not only to welcoming ’26s home, but to giving you the lay of the land. During the first few weeks of college, it can feel like all of Dartmouth is trying to give you a crash course on what you don’t know.

I’m part of the last class at Dartmouth that had a pre-pandemic freshman fall. Although things are pretty much back to normal now, at least in day-to-day campus operations, the pandemic changed everything, I think. For all of us.

Before COVID-19 hit, I didn’t know that the world could just stop. Dartmouth seemed impenetrable, a hidden bubble in the woods, safe from the outside world. It was a place to explore, have fun and make mistakes without real-life consequences.

Then in March of 2020, just days after turning in my winter finals, the bubble popped. I remember sitting in my childhood bedroom at home in California, feeling like my real life was thousands of miles away. For an unforeseen and catastrophic reason, after the most exhilarating and joyful 20 weeks of my life, Dartmouth had closed its doors to me.

Obviously, I’ve long since returned to Dartmouth. Its doors have reopened not just to me, but to all of its inhabitants and to new students as well. However, the shocking sense of withdrawal I felt during spring 2020 meant that to preserve my sanity, I had to forget — at least a little bit — what I lost when Dartmouth sent my class home with no return date.

It was too painful to remember when the scariest part of Dartmouth was my CHEM 5 midterm or an upperclassman frat boy on door yelling at me. I was grieving new relationships, prematurely severed by COVID, when I should have been deepening them. It hurt — and it still does — to remember a time when I wasn’t scared of being sent home or not seeing my friends for a year straight. 

So I locked my freshman year away, mentally compartmentalizing it behind frosted glass walls. If I didn’t think about its searingly intense freedom, or the joy of finding a new home and being absolutely, unequivocally in love with this place and its people, my new normal didn’t hurt so badly. Even as Dartmouth gradually returned to its former self, I kept those first terms in a mental box because I felt unable to return to the unjaded version of myself who had lived them.  

But, as I return for my final year at Dartmouth, I think it’s finally time to remember. There is so much to celebrate about freshman fall, and in the process of getting through the past two years, I muted its highs and lows in my memory.

First of all, being unaffiliated is liberating. You’re free from the pressure to be a “cool kid” — and you literally can’t be, at least according to the mainstream Dartmouth metric. I spent many on-nights my freshman year playing pong in the Pi Kap basement, where I was welcome on table even as a freshman. Occasionally I’d let my friends drag me to dance scenes in crowded “A-side” basements, but that wasn’t my scene, and without the category of Greek affiliation attached to my name, nobody really expected it to be. I joined five — yes, literally five — club sports teams, lavishing in the ability to play multiple sports after spending high school dedicated only to competitive soccer.

I’d be remiss not to mention the fact that freshman fall was when I came out. Before arriving to Dartmouth, I had no idea that I was gay — and for those of you who know me, you know the closet was glass. I’m not sure what it was about freshman fall that finally woke me up to this important — and in many ways, glaringly obvious — part of myself, but I know that it was simultaneously the most confusing and most joyful thing I’ve ever done. Being gay at Dartmouth is a mixed bag, but this school will always be the place where I found a missing piece of myself, and for that I am forever grateful.

At first, COVID seemed like a joke, with people wearing gas masks to frat parties and witty corona-themed 20W Instagram captions. I’m not really a crier, but I still tear up when I think about the cold admin email that made it all real, abruptly ending my year like a swift punch to the gut. To this day, I grieve the what ifs, even as I celebrate the person I’ve become and the people who surround me. Maybe I’d still be pre-med (thank God I’m not), maybe I would have dated that person for longer and maybe my friend group wouldn’t have changed so much. Oh well. 

In all honesty, I sat in front of my laptop staring at a blank Google Doc for days before I found the words I wanted to write down on this page. I almost missed the deadline for this story — and as an editor, I should know better. The mental box that I’d built proved challenging to open, and unforgetting is as difficult as it sounds. 

But I’m glad that I came into Dartmouth unjaded. Yes, it made the bad parts feel worse — much worse. But I’m not sure post-pandemic me would have let myself fall in love with Dartmouth. Knowing everything that happened, it might have felt too risky. I dove in unafraid and headfirst, and it hurt like hell when I hit the bottom. But I found my way back up to the surface eventually, and I’m much better for the journey.

At the end of the day, I won’t attempt to give you a Dartmouth crash course, because I think it works better when you figure it out for yourself. Dive in. Even if you hit the bottom, you’ll make your way back up. We’ll all be waiting for you at the surface.

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