Oral History Project Begins At Dartmouth
College Aims to Show Diversity Through Former Students, Staff
Hanover — Dartmouth College is documenting its diversity with an oral history project focused on the previously silent voices of students and staff.
While the college already has extensive audio recordings of former presidents, administrators and trustees, officials at the Rauner Special Collections Library decided last year to expand their oral archives to include current and former students, faculty and staff.
The goal is to illustrate how increasing diversity has changed the Dartmouth community since World War II, with a focus on collecting stories that show what it means to be an insider or outsider on the Ivy League campus, said project leader Mary Donin.
“We wanted everybody to feel eligible, and I think it’s fair to say all of us in our lives at some point feel like we don’t belong,” said Donin. “It’s a common theme among students coming in here ... so we wanted to have a lens to look at this community through that would allow everybody to speak to that topic.”
The process has been decidedly unscientific, Donin said, with participants recruited largely by word of mouth and notices in alumni publications. About 60 interviews have been completed, and officials hope to do 300 to 400 by the time the five-year project ends.
Getting folks to open up hasn’t been difficult, she said. To the contrary, some sessions have been so personal, participants have asked that they not be published until more time has passed, she said. But most were willing to have their words shared immediately.
“I’m just astounded,” Donin said. “People who have come forward have stories of both pain and growth and recognition of who they really are as human beings that happened to them while they were at Dartmouth, and I just think that’s an incredibly generous gift for any person to offer up to the world.”
Participants have included one of the first women to graduate from Dartmouth after it went co-ed in 1972 and a 1959 graduate who became the first black student to join the Delta Upsilon fraternity after the house’s brothers stood up to alumni who tried to block him. Among the more recent alumni was Michael Amico, a 2007 graduate who described how his role as an activist for gay rights and other issues made him both an insider and outsider during his time in Hanover.
“Because we felt so strongly about these issues, we were the most public about them certainly, but also just the most public voices on campus. So people just knew who I was. And thus you come to have kind of like a central place in the kind of contemporary mythology of Dartmouth, right?” he said in his interview. “You’re certainly on the outside in some ways. But you’re probably more on the inside than you think, in really powerful ways.”
Amico, now working on a doctoral degree in American history at Yale University, said he readily agreed to participate because he both loves talking about his Dartmouth experience and appreciates the project’s importance as a historian. While he called the insider vs. outsider theme a good framework for the interviews, he said that in reality, the topic is far more complex.
“It’s a good way of thinking about how the individual created his or her own world,” he said. “You couldn’t really figure out what Dartmouth was like or wasn’t like on any general level, and I think it would be almost dangerous to try because it is so different for every individual. So these kinds of archives allow us to think about what the school was like purely through the eyes of an individual and how they shaped their own world.”
Bruce Duthu, chairman of Dartmouth’s Native American studies department, was one of about 10 Native American students in his class when he graduated in 1980. He said he hopes the project will provide insight into an era during which Dartmouth was re-making itself, and that interviews like his will let listeners “catch a community in a moment of pivotal change.”
During his interview, Duthu describes how he — along with female and black students — faced often overwhelming scrutiny about whether they were “affirmative action babies” who wouldn’t otherwise have qualified for admittance. And while he quickly found a circle of friends among other minority students, feeling like he belonged to the broader Dartmouth community, including the classroom, took longer, he said. Until the mid-1970s, Dartmouth’s unofficial symbol and sports mascot was a Native American figure, and many in the community resisted doing away with it, he said.
“The major bump in the road for us was how to get an entire community to think about and embrace us as human beings instead of dead cultures whose only moments to celebrate were in the past instead of in our futures,” he said.
Each interview lasts between 30 minutes and an hour, Donin said, but all the “boring library stuff” necessary to transcribe and properly archive the information takes about 30 hours. Upcoming participants include campus maintenance workers and dining hall staff, many of whom she said end up acting as quasi-therapists to students as they serve up food.
“That’s the sort of thing that goes on all the time at every dining hall in every college, but whoever pays attention to the workers and the extra value they bring to the lives of the students? They’re serving them food, but they’re serving them a lot more,” she said. “I can’t wait to talk to those guys.”