Breaking the Bubble: How Students Get Away from Campus
Students detail the mental health side of the “Dartmouth bubble,” as well as their methods for escaping the campus environment.
Among the Ivy League, Dartmouth College is arguably the most remote of the eight schools. The Dartmouth undergraduate experience takes place primarily in a town of just 8,000 people. Some students don’t leave campus at all for days, if not weeks, at a time. The land around Dartmouth is sparsely populated, and the nearest major city, Boston, is more than two hours away. All of this contributes to the feeling of being stuck in the “Dartmouth bubble:” the insular environment that Dartmouth breeds. When Dartmouth’s small campus begins to feel like the entire world, the pressures of being a student can feel much more significant than when we have some distance. .
Mental Health Union co-president Caroline Conway ’24 noted that one of the most noticeable effects of the isolated community is the pressure for success. She often hears the phrase “floating duck syndrome” to describe Dartmouth’s environment.
“The idea is that you see this illusion of a duck gliding by on the water, and it looks so easy. You don’t see the furious kicking happening under the surface moving that duck along,” Conway said. “We have so many high-achieving, ambitious students that we forget what’s normal, and we forget that those achievements aren’t easy for them … it creates this illusion that you are subpar if you aren’t a high achiever.”
According to Conway, this academic stress can push people to overwork themselves. Combined with Dartmouth’s fast-paced quarter system, working too much in the bubble can have negative effects like burnout, when students push themselves too hard and become exhausted or even depressed.
“It can be very tiring, especially because the quarter system has a very different rhythm from a lot of other academic circles,” Conway said. “Once it gets going, there’s no stopping and there’s no break. You keep up with it or you fall behind.”
For international students, this pressure can be even greater. Shayan Yasir ’27, an international student from Indonesia, noted that he struggles to find time to leave the Dartmouth Bubble while balancing his academics.
“As an international student, I think that you really have to be on top of your workload,” Yasir said. “I think that there is an added pressure to show potential employers that you are the best choice, especially since they are looking for a reason to hire you over a U.S. citizen. So trying to clear time out of your schedule to leave for a day or more can be difficult.”
Corey Huebner ’26 also pointed out that Dartmouth’s campus-centricity can make students feel can make campus feel “isolating,” which in turn leads to less of an awareness of occurrences outside of Hanover.
“Especially with 10-week terms, everything's so fast paced, and [we’re] confined to the middle of nowhere,” he said. “You lose perspectives of friends back home, family [and], at least personally, international events because my mind is focused [on] academics here for the 10 weeks.”
One of the best ways to reset, according to Huebner, is taking a trip to nearby towns or cities. Although this solution is not always possible for first-year students — who are not allowed to have a car on campus — or for upperclassmen who do not have a car themselves, taking a trip off campus becomes significantly easier once students reach sophomore year and students in their class are able to keep a car on campus. Huebner himself has been able to take trips off campus using friends’ cars, but this is not a consistently accessible means of escaping the bubble.
Conway touched upon how some students have the economic privilege to get away from the bubble.
“Whether students have personal vehicles tends to be the determining factor for whether they can leave campus, especially because the coach is so expensive,” Conway said. “ I haven’t rented a Zipcar personally, but I’ve heard they tend to be quite expensive as well. So I think it does tend to be a matter of whether you have the economic means to get away from campus.”
Even making time for shorter trips to nearby towns can be difficult, especially when students don’t have access to a car. As Conway notes, the schedule that Advance Transit buses run on can be difficult to manage for students with a full course load and extracurricular commitments. Although the Advance Transit hours were recently extended, the latest bus route runs until 9:03 p.m. on weekdays and 6:20 p.m. on Saturdays, with no service on Sundays.
“Public transportation is a lovely resource, but it’s also very time consuming,” Conway said. “It shuts down on the early side, so if you have classes it’s really hard to find a window where you can get there and back without getting stranded.”
However, despite the added academic pressures, the price of transit and the lack of access to cars that many freshmen face, Yasir has still managed to find ways to overcome these challenges.
“I took a trip down to Boston with some friends, and it was one of the best weekends I’ve had,” Yasir said. “It isn’t as easy to get off campus, but it’s still possible with enough work, and it’s definitely worth doing.”
The other major way to leave campus is through clubs, particularly the Dartmouth Outing Club. Conway said that the DOC is the main way she travels away from Hanover.
“Being a DOC leader is very appealing,” Conway said. “If you get certified to drive a van, you can lead a trip and say, ‘I’m going to go to the farmers market.’ So I do think the DOC is a great outlet, and you feel that sense of physically leaving campus.”
She also emphasized the escape that the nearby natural surroundings can provide.
“Yes, this campus is isolated, but it’s surrounded by so many mountains, trees and incredible natural elements,” Conway said. “We benefit from that quite a bit, with the parks or the DOC or getting off campus.”
Beyond physically leaving campus, there are easy ways to keep in touch with the outside world virtually. Huebner says that one of the best things someone can do to cope with the pressures of the bubble is calling loved ones.
“I love to call my family, and that’s something I didn’t do as much during freshman year,” Huebner said. “ Now, I sometimes talk with my older sister for two hours straight, and it’s just a breath of fresh air to hear about what they’re doing.”
Dartmouth’s isolation isn’t all negative. Conway said that one of the best things about the bubble is how it provides safe spaces that may not exist everywhere outside of Dartmouth.
“I think I’ve benefited from it in several ways,” Conway said. “For instance, there are queer communities on campus who have granted me a lot of safety in ways that I would not necessarily have found in other spaces. Because this is such an isolated space, it offers a certain sense of security in that bubble.”
Huebner also noted that Dartmouth’s bubble serves to bring its tight knit community even closer together.
“One of the positives is that we definitely develop stronger relationships with those around us,” Huebner said. “You really form deep connections with people because you have to entertain yourself and find an escape from academics.”
Ultimately, Huebner emphasized that it is equally important to stay connected with the outside world and with the people on campus. There is a lot on campus to be appreciated, so long as students can take a break when they need to.
“After a certain point, you do need time away from this place so you are able to come back and enjoy it more,” Huebner said. “This is a great place, but — since it is so isolating — you need to refresh. I’m sure that’s normal for all academic institutions.”