This article is featured in the 2022 Homecoming special issue.
“Sorry” just doesn’t cut it when it feels like your entire world is crumbling, but sometimes sorry is all that Dartmouth seems to give us. Sorry that you guys are struggling. Sorry that we don’t know how to support you. Sorry that another one of your classmates has died. Sorry that we won’t give you the time and flexibility to grieve when you need it the most.
“Sorry” is just not enough. A mere apology just isn’t enough when it comes to supporting students in the way they need to be supported. I mean it with love when I say that Dartmouth is more than just a place to spend four years and get a degree. Dartmouth is a home, and I love it here, but part of loving Dartmouth is recognizing that things here are not perfect. Perhaps the greatest love is in realizing that they likely will never be. But there are steps that can be taken in the right direction — steps to prevent what happened to me a few weeks ago.
I started off Wednesday, Sept. 28 like I started off any other day: by dragging myself out of bed to get ready. Even the process of getting ready holds its own assumptions — that there are things to get ready for, classes to sit though and people to see. I thought I knew, more or less, what to expect: two classes, one math and one English. I knew I had lunch plans with my friends and that I would spend my night running from sorority to sorority as part of recruitment, having semi-awkward, speed-date-esque conversations with upperclassmen sisters, hoping that they were somehow impressed.
What I didn’t know was that a Category Four hurricane was going to hit my hometown, leaving massive amounts of death, flooding and destruction in its wake. This was something that I was going to learn later.
I had been mildly aware that Hurricane Ian was forming in the Gulf of Mexico, but things like that formed all the time — growing up in southwest Florida had left me rather desensitized to these alerts. And so time passed, and Ian grew, and I went about the busy routine that I was so comfortable with at Dartmouth. Then I got a text that Wednesday morning, the first of many to come, from a friend at Dartmouth:
“Thinking of ur family - hope everything’s okay down in fl”
Still disoriented from having just woken up, I tapped on The New York Times app, wondering what could possibly be happening back home as the screen seemed to just load and load and load.
It finally loaded, the homepage alight in typical breaking news fashion, reading: “HURRICANE IAN TO HIT SOUTHWEST FLORIDA.”
Talk about surreal. It took a while to comprehend it — to look at the words and truly understand that what they meant was home. My home. The cone of the hurricane had shifted practically overnight, aiming directly for my area; needless to say, I was stressed. What would happen to those who I loved — my family, our friends? What would become of my old high school — of the bridges and roads I drove over every day to get there? Southwest Florida held the parts of my life that Hanover had never seen, and likely never would.
My family had gotten the notice to evacuate at 5 a.m. the morning before, and they decided to leave just in case the path of the hurricane shifted. Though I knew they were physically safe, I was wracked with anxiety for my hometown and those who stayed behind. It felt like I was no longer in Hanover — or rather that I shouldn’t be — and though I was physically thousands of miles away, my mind and my heart were back home.
Needless to say, I wasn’t in any state to do much else but worry. After all, there isn’t much to do for natural disasters except wait. And what a wait it was. I spent much of that day trying to hold it together — trying to go through the motions of my day as though it were any other. But there is only so much one can do, and merely sitting in my calculus class meant nothing if my mind wasn’t there.
This is where the problem lies. I had a calculus midterm in a few days, so the expectation was that I pull myself together and power through it, doing all that I could to succeed given the circumstances. It was an expectation that I found I couldn’t live up to. I couldn’t concentrate on calculus as I sat there waiting for what felt like inevitable destruction. Eventually the hurricane hit, but I found that the following days were not much better. The area lost all power and service, and I couldn’t get ahold of so many people back home.
I decided that I wasn’t in the right state of mind to do much of anything, let alone take a calculus midterm. I emailed my professors explaining the situation, and most of them were accommodating beyond belief, telling me to take as much time as I needed and making sure I was okay. In fact, the people at Dartmouth are what made the situation bearable; my friends and some of my professors spent that week going out of their way to check up on me, often bringing me gifts and sending messages of love. I was grateful for their warmth.
I ended up asking my calculus professor for a 48-hour extension on my midterm. “It’s what I need to be successful,” I said. Because, despite it all, I still wanted to do well. I never ended up getting the extension and was told that the only excusable reasons for one would be “sickness, a conflict with an official schedule and attending the funeral of a family member.” As though I could have predicted the destruction of my hometown. As though I hadn’t spent hours praying that I wouldn’t have to attend the funeral of a loved one.
There was nothing else I could do. Every dean I emailed told me that it was beyond their control — that they couldn’t require that I receive an extension — no matter the circumstances. They signed off their emails “Sorry,” as though that could ease some of the helplessness.
I ended up doing all that I could and took the midterm, performing just as poorly as I thought I would. But this isn’t about the grade I got or my GPA or anything of the sort. It’s about a time in which my world was turned upside down and the supposed “support systems” that failed to help me when I needed them most. I’m grateful that things worked out the way that they did — that my family and friends back home are alive and healthy. I am also grateful that I was not struggling with mental health issues and that I have a network of friends who care about me and support me in any way that they can. For them I am eternally grateful.
But I spent a lot of time that week thinking about what would have happened if I didn’t have such people to rely on. What would have happened if my life had spiraled out of my control? Could I have made it?
The thing is that the world is chaotic, and our lives are even more so. People are struggling with things, both physically and mentally, and there is no reason to make anyone’s life any more difficult than it already is. In the end, all we do is reap what we sow, so why not sow a culture of understanding and kindness? Empathize more with your students, Dartmouth — stop plucking the flowers as they are trying to grow. The reality is that we are young and far from home, trying each day to make sense of a seemingly irrational world. It’s complicated, and most of all, we are complicated — the kind of complicated that “sorry” just won’t cut.