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Senior reflections: Tan '16 dances to her own Carleton beat

June 6, 2016 at 3:43 pm
By Thomas Rozwadowski

Sarah Tan’s rebellious streak almost prevented her from attending Carleton.

With two older sisters making the transition from Singapore to Northfield previously, Tan ‘16 was leery about following in her siblings’ footsteps—literally.

“Both of my sisters were in Semaphore, they’ve danced all their lives. So coming here, I knew I’d hear a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a dance major, right?’ No. I refused to do anything my sisters did,” Tan says, laughing.

“I didn’t even want to come to Carleton for that reason. We had all gone to school together since our elementary years, and I thought, ‘This is so boring! Carleton people are just going to think I’m following their path again!’”

Much to Tan’s surprise, she found comfort in the things she thought she knew about her sisters’ experiences at Carleton. Tan also turned her college experience into a singular one by owning the distinct pieces of her personality, particularly a love of theater.

While in high school, Tan only tried out for her first role to support a friend. At Carleton, the lights really turned on as a performer.

“I thought of theater as something fun I would do at Carleton. Majoring in it didn’t seem realistic,” Tan says. “Then I started taking classes with (theater professor) Roger Bechtel as a freshman, did some acting in my sophomore year. When it came time to declare a major, he asked me, ‘So, are you thinking about a theater major? And I just remember thinking, ‘Wait, I can do this? Well . . . now I am!’”

Four years at Carleton have inevitably shaped Tan. Likewise, her presence on campus helped shape Carleton.

In a series of senior interviews, we asked Tan (theater arts) to reflect on life as a Carl and the road to graduation.


“Singapore runs under the U.K. (school) system, which is more rigid. You have to know what you want to get into, and I got tired of studying to the test all of the time. I wanted to come to America and be more balanced with academics and life. And at Carleton, it was great—you didn’t have to declare a major until two years in! Both of my older sisters also came to Carleton, so I knew a lot about it already. Mainly though, I wanted to be able to jump around different departments and see what I wanted, with my own eyes. And that’s exactly what I did—I took classes in anything I was potentially thinking about as a major.”


“The first was being part of the Critical Conversations class (IDSC 203: Talking About Diversity). I didn’t know what it was. It was new at the time, and I kind of fell into it because someone recommended I try. The class really pushed me to recognize who I was . . . and it taught me that everybody has a story. You can think, ‘Oh, because I’m the dominant social identity, I don’t have a story to tell.’ But (professor Adriana Estill) wanted me to explore areas of my life that I didn’t have easy answers for, things that, in Singapore, you don’t talk about or question. It was such a great experience. The class touched on topics that really validated moments in my life.

“The second thing is Semaphore. I refused to join the dance community here because of my sisters. I had also never really danced before. But I took a Contact Improv (Dance 150) class for fun and I just fell in love with the movement. Jane Shockley was the teacher, and everything we did in the class was for the comfort of your body. It was such a new way of looking at dance for me. My strengths were celebrated.

“So once I saw that and joined Semaphore, I really began to love the physical movement that became part of my routine here. I had my own way of moving . . . and it gave me so much self-esteem. Dance truly became something different from what my older sisters did. I really took ownership of it and was able to define what it meant for me.”


“Some days I walk into Sayles, look at the people and think, ‘I can’t believe that I’m not going to see all of these wonderful faces again.’ I already felt that in fall, but I spoke to friends and alumni, and they told me it’s an easy trap. You can’t let yourself get sad and nostalgic, because then you won’t be present and savor the moments you have left.

“And that’s really how I’ve been living out these last days at Carleton. I have huge fears about graduation and having to work to find a community again. I’m not sure I’ll know how to do that in a space where I don’t see the same faces all the time, where I can’t just text my friend and know that I’ll see him in ten minutes. But I also know that I’ll always be connected to Carleton and I’ll get to see the people I’m closest to again.”