Aimee Barnes picked Dartmouth out of a book titled 500 Best Colleges in the Country. Her criteria were that she wanted to go somewhere far away, and she wanted to go somewhere prestigious. She hadn’t thought much about the East Coast, per se, until her English teacher encouraged her to look into the Ivy League.
“I felt like I wanted to see something new and different,” Aimee said. “I wanted to try new and crazy things. Go somewhere where I wasn’t gonna be with a bunch of people that knew me and I could be a new person.”
That place happened to be Dartmouth, at least she thought. It was a new location, a new culture, a new climate. Though these things were not all for the better. She hated the winter, and found it difficult to adjust to the culture. Whereas her public high school in Alameda, California, was very diverse and majority BIPOC, Dartmouth was the complete opposite, with maybe, maybe, a quarter of the student body being people of color. But she was able to pretend for a short while that it was a totally new, fun, crazy place – “buy into the raw-raw,” she said. It took her a few years to make really great friends at Dartmouth - to find her community. She had grown up with a group of five best friends back home in California. It wasn’t until they visited at the end of her freshman year and told her, “It doesn’t seem like you’re very happy here,” and, “It doesn’t seem like your friends here are very nice to you,” that Aimee realized she’d been lying to herself. It was like the first stage of grief – denial.
Her sophomore year, Aimee became very depressed. She didn’t connect very well with the people she knew, she didn’t like the weather – the long nights and the cold days. Her sophomore winter, she took the term off to volunteer and travel abroad in Thailand. She calls those travels “a spiritual reset.” She was able to live freely and independently. She taught English near a temple that was a sanctuary for humans and animals alike. She learned from a monk how to meditate and had the opportunity to care for herself and for others.
At Dartmouth, there was not so much opportunity to care and be cared for. She couldn’t stop comparing herself to others – their friends, their successes, their happiness. And the mental health resources, though she doesn’t know how they compare to the way things are today, were limited. She recalls that there were sun lamps available to aid with seasonal affectedness disorder, as well as ten “free” therapy sessions offered by the health center. She went to a couple therapy sessions, but stopped going when her therapist told her, “I don’t understand why you’re here, I don’t understand why you’re sad.”
At one point, she joined a sorority, thinking maybe she could meet some new people that way. But she didn’t love the frat scene – she didn’t love drinking, and she didn’t love being around people who were drinking, who were too drunk or sick to talk to her.
“I would go hang out in frat basements because that’s what everyone did, and I would just be there and wouldn’t really have anybody to talk to,” Aimee said. “I wanted an intellectual community and intellectual stimulation, and that's what I thought I'd have in college. I think I found Dartmouth to be an anti-intellectual place. The whole work hard, play hard mentality, you know, everybody was just doing their work, not talking about it, and then going out and getting wasted. I think I had this idea that I would go to coffee shops and have intellectual conversations and things like that.”
Aimee did eventually find her place in the Rockapellas singing group – where she cared for herself through music. And things got a little better once she had her group there. She met a group of NADs who were in the years above and below her in school, and she connected with them right away – maybe through a shared love of music or maybe through an innate understanding of one another. She has warm memories of her friends living in the attic of the NAD house – like when they pushed the beds together to make a king sized bed and snuggled up there to watch movies, or when they threw her a going away party where she caught pink eye during a major outbreak on campus just before she travelled to Thailand.
Aimee also learned a lot about her culture through her NAD friends from the Rockapellas. Her dad’s side of the family is Native Hawaiian, but she was raised by her mom after her parents divorced, and missed out on many opportunities for learning about her culture. In the Hawaiian club at Dartmouth, she learned simple things about Native Hawaiian culture, like how to make a ti leaf lei.
Once, Aimee took an anthropology class. It was on the history of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Meanesia. Aimee was probably the only Native Hawaiian person in class, so the professor was fairly attentive to her. He liked to ask her complicated questions about the history and culture of the region that she could rarely answer. One day, the class went to the Hood Museum to look at some of the artifacts they had collected from the region.
“They took out this necklace that was made of small braids of hair and had a carved fishhook in the center,” Aimee said. “It was an emotionally powerful moment because I felt very connected to this object that was there in front of me, because it’s made out of hair from somebody that I could be related to. Even in the very broad sense, it was made by somebody that I feel a kinship with. Then I had conflicting feelings of, why is it at the Hood? How do these people have it? Should they have it?”
Her senior year, Aimee had the opportunity to spend her winter term in Hawai’i doing research for her thesis paper, which was about the cultural renaissance in Hawaii in the 1970’s when people started making a more conscious effort to protect and restore the Hawaiian language, culture, and environment.
Now, Aimee lives in Hawai’i with her husband and two kids. She uses her environmental studies degree and works as a consultant on environmental issues. She has conflicting feelings about Dartmouth. On the one hand, she had a really hard time, and doesn’t necessarily believe that it was the most welcoming and inclusive place in the world – though the things that make it less than welcoming could easily be changed. On the other hand, she made lifelong friends there. Next summer in 2022, she and her friends from Dartmouth are planning to take all of their kids on a camping trip in Montana together.