First, on July 6, Princeton University announced its decision to allow first years and juniors back on campus for the fall. Then, on August 7, it reversed course with an announcement explaining that due to spiking coronavirus cases around the country and the consequent increasing New Jersey travel restrictions Princeton’s “undergraduate program must be fully remote in the coming semester.”
At a school that prides itself on the fact that 98% of undergraduate students live on campus, a decision to go “fully remote” might have meant that Princeton, NJ would be mostly empty of its 5,267 enrolled undergraduates. Built-in exceptions included “those students whose situations make it extremely difficult or impossible for them to return to or study from home,” and students who needed campus facilities for research essential to their degrees, whom the university would plan to accommodate.
Instead, there are 727 undergraduates living off campus in Mercer County, 525 of whom are living at addresses other than their permanent address, according to Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss. Between the 525 not living at home and the 207 students who were accommodated on campus, more than 10% of the student body moved back to Princeton this fall.
I am not from Mercer county and was not among those going back to campus for research, so initially I explored options like Cape Cod, Los Angeles, and the Jersey Shore. Why move back to a quiet suburban town now stripped, at least for me, of the world-class libraries, the social spaces, and all the infrastructure of life that Princeton so painstakingly cultivates? But two friends I wanted to live with had to be here for laboratory theses, and after lots of discussion, my group of friends compromised on a semester in Princeton, off campus.
To my surprise, most of the other students I spoke to were toying with the idea for various reasons, and people were quickly signing leases where they could find them; planning involved relocations, and scouring Facebook marketplace for furniture. In late August and early September, we all moved to a town to which we weren’t exactly invited and where we only sort of belong.
When people refer to Princeton as the “orange bubble,” they are referring to the fact that the University seems to exist apart from the real world psychologically, practically, and geographically. At this point it is a clichéd descriptor, but it is a good one in that it captures the privilege and potential, as well as the loneliness and coddled aspects, of life at Princeton. That bubble is a concept I have been thinking a lot about this semester, as it has been challenged in so many unprecedented ways.
The psychological bubble might be described as follows: In the midst of a Princeton semester, the whirlwind of peers, faculty, coaches, mentors, accomplishments, and failures can make everything else, from family members to news stories, feel remote. Now, for students in Princeton or elsewhere, I would guess that this aspect of bubble life has stopped being particularly meaningful. Absolutely everything is just more blue light, beamed at you from a screen at different times of day, and so the Princeton mentality does not feel quite as removed as it used to.
The practical, housekeeping aspects of life also made Princeton feel like it existed outside of the real world: On-campus living at Princeton means that a meaningful percentage of students have their bathrooms cleaned and their trash taken out. The residential system provides almost all students dorm rooms without kitchens, and the University requires that all first- and second-year students have unlimited meal plans. Then, 59% of upperclass students join eating clubs: even the premise of cooking for oneself is new for many. For anyone who moved away from home this semester, the move from the bubble to the real world has also been obvious.
It is the geographic aspect of the traditional Princeton bubble that has this semester, for the students off campus, become the trickiest. In a regular year, most students venture no further than Hind’s Plaza to the north and the boathouse to the south with any degree of regularity. As one writer on College Confidential notes: “While Princeton is undoubtedly a college town, it does not have the same vibe as Ithaca or New Haven. The University students tend to keep to themselves. I rarely see students hanging out in the coffee shops or restaurants downtown. There are no typical ‘college bars’ in Princeton, instead the social scene is mainly on Prospect. Game day is also a quiet experience — no traffic, no loud tail gaters [sic]. I don’t even pay attention to when the basketball or football games are, because it doesn’t matter, as the vehicular traffic is the same.”
For those living in places other than Princeton, the geographic aspect of the bubble has become perhaps the most meaningless. For those living in Princeton, off campus, though, that aspect is still meaningful, but it has been completely inverted. Suddenly, though there is no gameday at all and no organized social life to speak of (either at bars or on Prospect), the town itself has become the necessary center of college life for more than 700 students in the area. The relationship between the students living off campus and the town of Princeton is a new and sometimes difficult one to navigate on both sides.
To live off campus in Princeton, while a Princeton student, is to be in a category no one seems to know quite what to do with. Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote that, “While the University did not encourage students to return to the Princeton area and live off-campus, it is not surprising that a number of students made plans to do so given that state regulations prohibited colleges and universities from requiring students to live on campus this fall.”
Now that we are here, we exist in a kind of in-between world vis-à-vis the University. Though we cannot get tested for coronavirus on campus, we can get flu shots for free with our PUID. More ephemerally, we can use the WIFI on campus, becoming part of the University network, literally, to complete assignments or conduct research. There are certainly advantages to being in the area, and it is therefore important that the option to move to Princeton was relatively accessible, given financial-aid policies that allowed students to use housing aid for any off-campus living this semester.
On September 10, Vice President Rochelle Calhoun emphasized the inherent snag of an off-campus population during an online semester when she used a new listserv called “pu-local” for the first, and so far, only, time. In the email, she welcomed students to the area and drew our attention to Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, where it is stated that “students will be held accountable for violations of University standards of conduct when they occur in the local community or pose a safety risk to those on campus.”
The challenge the email revealed was that the students who are living off campus in the area are still students, but for the first time, the University has no direct, residential control over them. The carefully curated Princeton universe has started to fracture outside of the world it worked so hard to create.
Hotchkiss continued by saying that “once in-person classes and routine campus and residential life activities resume, we expect that students will want to reside on campus,” noting the limited availability of housing in the local community. I wonder, though, if the positive aspects of an off-campus semester will inaugurate a trend of a higher proportion of students choosing the option. Off-campus living has increased the likelihood that undergraduates have cars, for example, allowing my housemates and I to access gems in the area like the Gingered Peach and Trader Joe’s and to have a much higher degree of mobility than ever before. If I am invited back to campus for the spring, that would be, for me, a lot to give up.
As different as the living situation is for those students who moved back to the area, this is a new situation for the town of Princeton, as well. Ellie, the catering manager at Olive’s, told me that even though business was not so bad over the summer, “It does make a big difference when the students are here. It’s a big portion of our sales,” especially now that more students than ever are feeding themselves. She noted that, beyond financials, student presence “brings a different atmosphere. It’s more fun. It’s more alive. Without the students, the store looks dead,” and so, she added, does the town.
There have been some contentious aspects of this flood of undergraduates into the suburban streets. Friends of mine have had strained-to-hostile conversations with neighbors about the volume of the music they play in their yard. Other friends hosted a small birthday gathering that angered neighbors, given, paradoxically, that it was outside due to safety precautions. These neighborly disputes were the predictable result of a sudden critical number of college-aged people in a quiet town.
Some of the controversies, though, have been more serious. A small number of students have reportedly held indoor gatherings with thirty to forty people (the events to which Vice President Calhoun seemed to be responding in her September 10 email). In early September, one woman posted to a Princeton Parents Facebook page, “Princeton undergrads in a rental a few doors down throwing a huge party, not social distancing, playing loud music, dancing and drinking. Some arrived via Lyft. Yea this will go well.”
One source reported that there is a core group of undergraduates who have been acting “less than vanilla,” mainly members of preexisting social groups like fraternities, sororities, and eating clubs, who have been seeking to include the weekend aspects of Princeton life in their off-campus experiences. “It’s the illusion of being near Princeton and wanting to recreate it,” she said.
In any town newly populated with college students, noise and rowdiness are an expected problem. Now, though, there is more at stake, as any large, indoor gathering explicitly violates health protocols and risks becoming a “super-spreader” event. The same source spoke for my own discomfort at these actions: “It’s hard for me to understand how people rationalize potentially killing another person. It just shows a lack of regard for the people in the Princeton community who support us every year.”
So far, none of that seems to have led to outbreaks, although students living locally are not being regularly tested, so we cannot know for sure. Both the community member complaints and the public-facing parties seem to have quieted down.
Though the University stated that they had expected students to move to the area, I was surprised with the numbers that had in the end. As lovely as it is, Princeton is a quiet, suburban town that is relatively expensive. Uniquely this semester, we could have found ourselves in any part of the world, as I had initially advocated for my own group, and in fact, I know of groups in Hawaii, Aspen, San Diego, and Vermont.
I think there are simple answers to why a critical mass of undergraduates ended up in Princeton. It is more or less a known entity. We have designated it where we go for school, and so here we came. In the words of a junior I spoke to, Princeton “felt like a good place to coalesce.”
Or maybe we’re following the classic college-visitation advice: see where feels right. I drive a lot now, mostly to get groceries, and coming back into the town, the sign that says “Welcome to Princeton” makes me kind of emotional. It reminds me of coming to this town during Thanksgiving break my senior year of high school, a full five years ago. I had just applied early action. I remember walking absolutely bewildered through the dark stone on a gray November day, into which my memory has assigned snow and aching to spend four years right here. I meant, then, on campus. This semester, I found a close second right next door, with numerous and unexpected silver linings.