Some thoughts on the past four years of my life, and my aspirations for the next.
My high school graduation cap sits on the top shelf of the bookcase in my room. The glitter-strewn fabric delineates a serif "D" and perches gently on a square divided into equal sections of green and white. A couple certificates and awards from college hide it from sight, save for the tassel's green and white tips that peek out from below.
Four years ago, I was a better person than I am today. "Better" clearly being a subjective term, but for all intents and purposes I wish that I could be that 18-year old version of myself again: the dreamer who wore that green and white cap and saw the world through inquisitive eyes. Paraphrasing William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep, coming into college I was "idealistic and curious, like the kids before me, hungry for purpose and meaning."
But somewhere, somehow — something changed.
As a prospective student, Dartmouth made me uncomfortable. When I visited campus for Dimensions, Dartmouth's admitted students event, it seemed like everyone was outgoing and friendly and — white. Everyone talked about what sports teams they liked, what high-brow job their parents had, or what career they were set on, and it felt like I was the only person who didn't fit in. Having grown up in an area with a significant Asian demographic, this was my first experience interacting with a predominantly white community and simply put, it was unsettling. My father's insistence to just attend UC Berkeley rang a little louder in my head as the phrase "welcome home" echoed around the room of smiling faces. As the other prospective students around me grew more and more enthusiastic about the spontaneous songs and dances, I felt more and more alienated; I wasn't sure if I'd ever find myself at home there. But the more I thought about why I felt this way, the more I realized that if all of the other prospective students (including POC) were getting along just fine then maybe — the issue must be with me. The 18-year-old version of myself sought out discomfort; instead of listening to my parents and heading to Berkeley, where I would be surrounded by the same people and environment that I had grown up with, I wanted to take my first step outside of the Silicon Valley bubble.
Stepping off the coach onto Dartmouth's campus five months later, the first thing I noticed was how green the campus was. The summer foliage was in full swing and light breezes whispered through the dancing leaves. The photographer within me was grinning from end to end. I spent my first week in the forests of New Hampshire, learning how to whitewater kayak and making my first friends in college on First-Year Trips. Compared to the sensory overload and discomfort of Dimensions, Trips was the perfect amount of organic socialization punctuated by random raids (pranks by current students) that helped introduce students to one another and life at Dartmouth. As I floated down the Connecticut river, spinning in circles after a race with one of my tripees (fellow trip members), I imagined myself spending my weekends backpacking through the woods or renting a kayak and spending the night on a secluded river bank. But as school began, I quickly learned that First-Year Trips was in no way an accurate representation of the next four years to come.
After trips came orientation: a cocktail of equal parts awkward interactions, misuse of school funds, and collecting of assorted pens. Trained with over a decade of schooling, we dove into various scavenger hunts and activities, filling our free Dartmouth Library drawstring bag with free pens, shirts, and note pads. I never ended up using any of these and to this day they're left somewhere in the depths of Dartmouth. Over the next few days I went through the motions of meeting other students, trading snapchats, instagrams, and Facebook-adds. But in these interactions, the underlying taste of insecurity, self-adulation, and flattery made me shy away from other first-years that I met. Outside of scheduled events, Freshman dorm parties were the preferred medium for socializing with students either going wild in the middle of the room or propped up against various corners shifting their warm beer from one hand to another in an attempt to look natural. Having attended a number of parties as a bartender in high school I had no desire to go through the routine of getting intoxicated on cheap beer; I wasn't going to force myself to make friends with people who planned their day around getting drunk.
Instead, I spent the first weeks of term looking for a sense of normalcy: auditioning for the Symphony Orchestra and spending an obscene amount of time binge-watching K-dramas and anime. I experimented with new activities such as the Fencing Team, Ledyard Canoe Club, and Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering. I also found myself working in a biomechanics lab (for free since I was denied funding), taking the local shuttle back and forth between the engineering school and hospital every other day. But for some reason, there was still something missing: what I missed most was the presence of photography.
On campus, everyone seemed to be going about their day rushing from class to class or studying on the green. They seemed oblivious to the fires that spread through the trees on campus, turning the lush forest of green into bright glimpses of gold. On my walks around campus, I watched the golden streaks slowly make their way down the branches of trees — draping the campus in an ephemeral dress of fire and gold. All around me, people were coming to and from class, stopping only to take a quick snapchat of the fall foliage or pose with some freshly fallen leaves. At a liberal arts college like Dartmouth, I thought there would be droves of photographers scrambling around trying to capture the perfect autumn shot so it was surprising that there was no dedicated photography club — or visual arts club in general for that matter. Everyone seemed to be focused on finance, entrepreneurship, the Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC), acapella, or sports. For a school with nature so entrenched in its being, no one seemed to want to capture it.
I found myself attending meetings for the yearbook and newspaper — the only two clubs on campus somewhat related to photography. But I found that these organizations focused more on representing campus life and the student body than exploring photography for the sake of photography itself. I wanted to find people with whom I could explore themes and ideas, go off and freeze in the winter to do long exposures of half-frozen waterfalls, or sit and watch the stars during an astrophotography time-lapse. Even in the famous DOC, it seemed like the people there cared more about taking off at breakneck speeds to summit New Hampshire's 4,000 footers, than waiting for the afternoon sun to filter through the leaves and dust — like spotlights featuring the wonders of the forest floor. On my first hikes in college, oftentimes I would be the only person who brought a camera, trailing behind the others trying to capture the wonders of the world. I became so desperate for photography friends that I started posting pictures like this in campus GroupMe chats to ask random people to be my models.
Sadly, my cries were met with the vacuous buzz that resides in every college group chat. I didn't photograph anything for the rest of my freshman year and even after heading back home for the summer, my camera was left collecting dust. As someone defined by their passions and interests, losing the motivation to photograph felt like losing a part of myself.
This isn't meant to be an attack on the Dartmouth community for being academically and professionally driven. Rather I feel that Dartmouth students as a whole are victims of an accelerated quarter system and forced to operate in a self-perpetuating cycle of self-denial; the herd-mentality of high-achieving students creates an environment where we feel obligated to shy away from creative outlets in the name of productivity.
On freshman academics.
Coming back to the start of college, the first few weeks were honestly a breeze. I was taking multi-variable calculus, a drawing studio, and an intermediate French course. Having taken calculus in high school, as well as AP French, the material covered in the first few weeks were pretty must just review. I spent most of my afternoons binge watching TV shows for hours on end and going out to explore different parts of campus, not really taking anything seriously. Wandering through the halls of Baker and Berry Library, I'd see students diligently highlighting and color-coding their notes and detailing these immaculate diagrams during the first week of school - and I thought it was silly; it probably took longer to make it look pretty than it did to annotate the material.
Three weeks later, midterm season started.
My first college midterm was kept taped on the wall above my desk for the entirety of college. Occasionally the tape would come off and the papers would crash down in a little heap behind my desk, and I'd diligently duck under the table to retrieve it — folding the old tape onto the page and pressing a fresh strip back onto the wall. Whenever I was grinding away on some problem set or essay, if I felt like going on YouTube or putting off work I would just look up to see a bright red "D+" that never failed to motivate me back to studying. Eventually I just stopped working at my desk, but that's a story for later. I still remember the feeling of confidence I had when I walked out of that midterm, as well as the utter shock and disbelief when I saw the results online. The next morning I went to pick up my test, willing it to have a different grade, but sure enough after scanning through pages covered in bleeding red lines and tallying up the points, I had a solid D+.
As tempting as it was to just shove the papers into the recesses of my bag and ignore the manifestation of failure before me, I found a table in an empty room nearby and started to work my way through the problems. The mistakes were glaring and indisputable. Finishing with extra time meant that I had rushed through the exam, making stupid mistakes from simple arithmetic errors, to copying down the numbers incorrectly or totally misreading part of the question. From that day on, I stopped going for walks around campus. My parents were paying $70,000 a year for me to attend this school, and here I was getting Ds on tests. As the quarter progressed further and further, recovering from a low grade and keeping up with classes became harder and harder. Gone were the carefree days of TV and exploration — what I found in the midst of midterm season was that I knew nothing about studying.
In high school, the pacing of the semester system was so leisurely that I could just sit (really, sleep) through class and pass with flying colors by reviewing the powerpoint slides the night before my midterms. As a result, my notebooks were always a messy sprawl of hastily-copied whiteboard equations that I never reviewed — lost to the same recesses of my mind that held my collection of saved Facebook/Instagram posts. Nothing had prepared me for the ocean of knowledge that was Dartmouth’s quarter system and choking, drowning under the workload - I clung to the life vest of Khan Academy, 1.5x speed lecture videos, and heavily accented YouTube tutorials. In the days prior to my exam I’d make massive concept maps on sheets of printer paper - writing them over and over again until I could write all my notes from memory. There’s a thin line between memorization and learning and I didn’t know it at the time, but that was when I started to lose myself to the machinations of higher education.
Weeks went by and thankfully I wasn't getting Ds anymore. But despite the extra time spent studying I would still get nervous and make simple mistakes during my tests - enough to bring me down a letter grade at times. I couldn't shake this, and it was so frustrating not being able to truly express my knowledge. I was taking a drawing class at the time and test taking was in such contrast to my experience in the studio, where I could immerse myself in the moment and etch out the essence of the scene in front of me. In that class, I was famous for making gigantic drawings that often included taping several 36 x 48 inch sheets together. My professor loved it, but in reality this was because I didn't have the patience or fine motor control to draw tiny details of lights and shadows. I brought up my test-taking performance anxiety with that art professor and she told me so nonchalantly that I should treat my exams "as if they were art." Fast forward to my next exam - I kept those words in mind as I took a breath and imagined my pencil to be a gritty charcoal stick. My strokes light, but intentional; gently crafting an imprint of my mind on paper. My test-anxiety never bothered me again after that, and ironically enough, even though I stopped photography to focus on my studies, in the end it was art that saved me.