It’s also normal to feel uneasy about being miserable—you have, after all, spent the last month being told by everyone around you just how great Princeton is.
So let me break the magic (and dispel any bullshit you might have heard otherwise): Princeton is not the greatest old place of all. The Class of 2022 is not great. These might not be the best four years of your life.
And all that may be a good thing.
During the fall of my first year, it was not the loneliness, the homesickness, the emerging inferiority complexes, the culture shock, or the stress that made me struggle the most. It was that everyone around me seemed to find this place magical and great, and I didn’t. I found it just OK.
When I arrived at Princeton, I carried with me the luggage of a very specific set of expectations propagated by years spent in a cultural landscape that glorifies and mystifies the Ivy League. The process of brainwashing—starting with the Pre-rade and ending with the annual spectacle of Reunions—that Princeton has started subjecting you to over the last few weeks is an unabashed attempt at auto-glorification. These prescribed expectations not only influence the way you think of Princeton, but they also dictate what experiences you think you should seek out and your perception of how to do Princeton “right.” In other words, the narrative of your experiences at Princeton has already been crafted by these preconceived notions.
It is the conflict between your experiences here so far and this set of expectations, which paint Princeton as some aristocratic mystical place, that makes it feel so strange to be dissatisfied in your first days here. Moreover, it is this set of expectations of the “real Princeton” that makes it feel wrong to deviate from the narrative.
Don’t get me wrong: many, and perhaps most, of your peers love Princeton and that’s also A-OK. For some, Princeton is a magical place that they will rave to their grandchildren about. Your roommate might very well quietly hum “Old Nassau” to themselves as they fold their socks, place a “Duck Fartmouth” sticker on their laptop, and carefully color coordinate their suspenders to match the rest of their OA group.
But given the hectic assembly-followed-by-assembly-followed-by-people-telling-you-how-to-do-Princeton schedule of your Frosh Week, it sometimes seems that everyone but you finds this place magical. And worse even: that something is wrong with you because you aren’t feeling quite so charmed. Questions of Why am I the only one not starry-eyed? make you feel (or, at least, made me feel) undeserving, unthankful, odd, lonely. During my first year, this sensation made me fear that I could somehow do Princeton “wrong.” I let this fear and the question of How do I do Princeton “right”? dictate decisions ranging from what classes to take and what friends to make to where to spend my late nights.
Administrators like to point to Princeton’s rate of alumni donations (“the highest in the country!”) and the rate of college reunions attendance (“the highest in the country!”) as indicators of the “greatness” of Princeton. In reality, these statistics, along with others (such as the rate at which graduates enter certain professions) are symptoms of an agenda pre-written for them by a by-gone generation.
Princeton is not a notably “greater” place than the University of Virginia or the University of Michigan. Students here are about as happy as students at most universities. (Princeton ranks 62nd for “Overall Satisfaction & Happiness of Choice” according to one ranking.) What sets Princeton apart from most other universities is the degree to which students feel like they are not allowed to dislike this school. Students across America see their university as a place to learn, socialize, and network. As a tool with strengths and flaws to further their goals. Students at Princeton see Princeton as the place to pursue those goals. As the ultimate college. This outlook creates a culture in which it feels wrong to have reservations about the “greatness” of it all.
Disliking Princeton, however, will not in any way prevent you from pursuing your passions and building a future you can be excited for. Being critical of Princeton doesn’t prevent you from being incredibly happy here. You don’t have to drink the Orange-Bubble-Kool-Aid to have a meaningful experience, because there are as many successful paths at Princeton as there are students. You don’t have to join an eating club, try out for an a cappella group, become a Democrat, accept a consulting job, or go to medical school to do Princeton “right.” Your Princeton experience might lead you through a co-op, to the GOP, and land you in a low-paying middle-school teaching position. You might leave this place an artist, a professional athlete, or a small-scale farmer. Don’t let your own sense of success be measured by what others around you value.
Perhaps you’ll be best served by remembering that everyone is wrong about what your Princeton experience should be. Tear up your copy of This Side of Paradise, The Transformers, and A Cinderella Story; tear up your printed Shapiro essay; tear up your notes of Eisgruber’s matriculation address; tear up the annual Eating Club stereotype pamphlet; and, most importantly, tear up the article you’re currently reading.
2 thoughts on “A Letter to the Frosh Who Don’t Like it Here”
What a wise take on Princeton and by extension many other Ivy League schools. From the teaching perspective I was a Lecturer in mol bio for two years. Initially I was so incredibly excited to be at PRINCETON and then gradually I came to realize maybe it wasn’t all that. I mean it was good in many ways but it really wasn’t mind blowingly sensational. I even missed my public university students with whom I always felt I connected on a deeper level. At the same time I benefited enormously from the experience. I suppose it even looks good on my CV. But I never really drank the koolaid, and you’re right, it doesn’t really matter if you remain unmoved by the highly theoretical magic. I opened your article with trepidation expecting the standard Princeton manifesto only to be very pleasantly surprised. Take it all in stride, be true to yourself, and make the most of it!
I too was raised with brainwashing from a certain part of my family that Princeton is the best, and that all other universities, even the other Ivies, are substandard. We went to many a home football game and marched with the University Marching Band down Prospect Street to the old Palmer Stadium. I still remember the lyrics to most of the fight songs. When I got my rejection letter from Old Nassau, I read felt like the. black sheep idiot of the family. I still made it to med school.