I feel incredibly privileged to be living at home, off-campus, even as a first-year student.
It’s controversial, I know. But I made this decision purposefully and willingly, and it was the right decision for me. I love hearing about my peers finally finding out how short that one classmate is or tasting every flavor of boba at Kung Fu Tea. But I’d like to share my own perspective too, to see if I can find some common ground.
First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge that neither living on campus nor living at home is a picnic. Nothing in 2021, thus far, has been a picnic—even picnics aren’t picnics anymore.
I have seen enough pictures of classmates’ questionable steak dinners, fifty-seven moldy apples, and empty water can hoards to know that the on-campus eating situation is not ideal. I’ve heard enough tales of students bolting to turn in their spit tests on time, and then staggering back to their dorms before their first class, to know that getting tested so often is a hassle. And I can only imagine what it’s been like for the people who forgot to pack crucial items and now have to wait seven weeks for their packages to be processed. Or what it’s like to be one of the students who has now tested positive.
At the same time, I’m not especially thrilled by the fact that I haven’t been anywhere or seen anyone properly since March 11, 2020. That was the last day I went further than walking distance from my house—other than to go to the doctor a few times, deliver a cake to my friend’s house on his birthday, visit the beach once (very early in the morning; I fell asleep immediately, and then we left within an hour because it started to rain), and drive to a nature preserve in my town (before turning around because it was too crowded). On March 11, I went to school as normal, went to curling practice after school as normal, and then hung out with my teammates afterward for at least an hour, just like normal. I might have even stopped at the grocery store with my mom at some point, I can’t remember—because it would have been a non-event if I did.
And then I received an email from my school that foreshadowed the end of that normal—my normal, at least—and I had no idea how lengthy an end that would be. In fact, I didn’t quite understand it would really be an “end” at all. I didn’t cancel my March 18 plane tickets to Wisconsin for U18 curling nationals until the event was itself canceled—because how could Wisconsin be dangerous?
But this is a familiar story. We all have our own version of this same story.
What’s different about me is that I seem to be purposefully prolonging my loneliness, my ability to develop into an independent human, and the opportunity to enjoy normal college student things like knowing how short my classmates are and drinking boba. I seem like an irrational ascetic, who finds joy in self-denial and hermitism. I may even seem like a misanthrope, especially because I know how much I struggle with responding to Snapchats in a timely fashion, and how uncomfortable I find opening up to people on video or phone calls, due to the fact that the walls in my house are so thin they may as well not exist.
I am not enjoying solitude. I am not enjoying the fact that there is not a single Princeton classmate I have met virtually whom I would consider to be a close friend, let alone a best friend. (I’m not sure quite what the threshold for just plain “friend” is, either, especially in the virtual realm—but the quantity of “friends” I have met virtually is definitely dangerously low.)
But, bizarrely, in the grand scheme of my life, I have come to feel that independence, friendships, and being a normal college student are not the important things for me right now. The important things, for me, right now, are staying healthy, keeping my family out of danger, and not burdening the healthcare system in any capacity whatsoever.
Approximately 10% of the U.S. population has tested positive for COVID-19, and approximately 2% of those people have died. I’m sure both of those official estimates are extreme under-counts. They also don’t account for the enormous increase in officially non-COVID-related deaths since the pandemic began, deaths which could be due to higher rates of unemployment, poorer healthcare access in other capacities, lower food supply, mental health challenges, or any other number of reasons. I point out these statistics because I often feel as though many Americans have forgotten them, having “moved on” from or “gotten over” the pandemic. I haven’t “moved on” yet.
In many ways, my decision to stay home is selfish: in order to preserve my mental health, I can’t knowingly put myself in a position that could be harmful to others in any way. I understand, however, that this is not a wholly rational feeling, and that it doesn’t necessarily apply to others in the way that it applies to me. Many people don’t have a choice about whether they live off- or on-campus—their financial situation might demand one choice or the other, their parents might not let them have a choice, they might have visa or time-zone considerations, or they might suffer from a health condition. The fact of the matter is that in simply having a choice, I am privileged. And I stand by the choice I made.
I know that this choice was different from the vast majority of my peers, and thus it’s only natural that I feel left out. In the classes and social events I have participated in, with the majority of the other participants being in the class of 2024, I have felt like one of few people—if not the only person—not on campus. This is not a good feeling; after my first zee group meeting this semester, during which everyone was happily bonding over experiences I did not and could not share, I’m a bit ashamed to admit I started sobbing into my pillow. Fueled by self-pity, I soon proceeded to email whomever I could to find out what percentage of the class of 2024 was not on-campus—in other words, I wanted to make sure that my alienation was not just inside my head. It turns out I am among only 18% of the class of 2024 who made or were forced to make this choice (data courtesy of Dean Dolan). Although this data helped me justify my self-pity, I swiftly came to the realization that self-pity is not a productive state of mind. Since then, I have been more purposeful in managing such unproductive emotions.
It’s not that I don’t want the first-year college experience. It’s just that for me, right now, it isn’t worth it. I can’t yet fathom a situation in which it would be worth it for me. It’s not academically worth it for me, given that the majority of us are still attending all classes and office hours virtually. It’s not even financially worth it for me—unless a student is on financial aid that covers room and board, it will almost certainly be more expensive to live on campus, and especially given these tumultuous times, this is not trivial for many people.
This brings me back to the question of privilege: it is a privilege to attend Princeton and a privilege to live on campus. It’s another kind of privilege to choose to live off campus. I live in a semi-rural area, all of my household members are working from home, and we are able to have everything we need delivered to our house. This is an incredible privilege, and I am grateful for it, for my freedom to stay inside my house, to stay safe, to keep my family safe, and to not burden the healthcare system. As a result, the best way I feel I can serve myself and my community is to do absolutely nothing. Which sounds irrational—especially to me, because if anything I am a doer—but in terms of my physical body, it is best that it stays exactly where it is. At least for now, my words will have to do the doing for me.
For many people, especially people in an older generation, this period of time is one in which to be patient: to wait for change and put life on hold until we’re “back to normal.” For many others, especially teenagers and young adults, patience is impossible. We are still developing into our future selves, at an incredibly rapid rate, and we can’t halt that development for anything. For some, that means ignoring reality. For most, I believe, that means adapting to their realities as best as they can.
I don’t believe patience is right for everyone. Personally, I’m not sure I know how to be patient—maybe that will come with age. As a result, I’m committed to adapting my own unique reality as best as I can. That adaptation means being at home, mostly right where I am as I write this, sitting at the desk I received for my fifteenth birthday—in my purple-walled bedroom, with my stuffed animal collection, my many childhood diaries, and my giant painting of a green tiger running through outer space (painted by my great-uncle and given to me long before I even applied to Princeton). Observing my surroundings, it sometimes feels as though I will never grow up—and yet, in reality, I’ve somehow found a way regardless.
It hasn’t been easy, but I have never been one to turn down a challenge. Building my own independence without leaving my parents’ house is a work in progress. I had never made anything other than scrambled eggs (and pancakes, with assistance) on a stove prior to the pandemic, and I’ve since graduated from oatmeal to lemon curd to crème anglaise. I have even found joy in making food for myself and my family. I’ve found joy doing chores before anyone feels forced to do them. I now wake up early on the weekends to walk our dog so that my family isn’t woken first by her barking. These are small details of self-improvement, but I won’t become a perfect adult overnight (or ever). I must start somewhere, and I’m proud of my progress.
And slowly, I’ve been changing my relationship with my parents, doing my best to establish myself as less of a child or dependent, and more of an equal—this is also a work in progress, but I’m savoring the opportunity to work on it by my own rules, at my own pace. Beyond the little things—making the time I spend with my parents feel more like time with friends than with the people who changed my diapers, for instance—we’ve been talking differently. I no longer sit passively when my parents talk about their day at work, or just nod my head waiting for them to finish whenever they bring up something more personal. Instead, I do my best to offer advice, or encouragement, or a genuine listening ear.
Again, these are not the most groundbreaking things, but I believe they are emblematic of something greater. Yes, I’ve chosen not to move out, giving up the college campus experience. Even still, my goals, values, and self-stagnation fears are probably pretty similar to my classmates’. The difference is just in how I’ve decided to go about achieving my goals and pursuing my self-development. Even if I seem like a misanthrope, or a conspiracy theorist, or simply incomprehensible—that’s okay. I’m not really looking to be understood. I’m just hoping to provide a different kind of perspective on what it’s like to be a Princeton student in 2021.
Even though I made my own choice to remain off campus, it can be incredibly challenging to combat my feelings of FOMO, regret, fear, self-pity, and loneliness. For me, like anyone else, there are good days and bad days. I think that’s exactly why my decision, so different from the majority of my peers, is actually not that radical or different. We are all similarly trying to navigate our complex lives, during this complex era, in our individual and complex ways. We are all just trying our best. That’s all we can do.