Over the last few months, whenever I told people where I was going to college, I would more often than not encounter an uncomfortable situation. While never unimpressed, my acquaintances would frequently feel the need to recognize the esteem of the institution by downplaying its reputation. This would generally take the form of overly-exaggerated inflections; “Princeton, where is that?” or “Yeah, I think I’ve heard the name before,” some comments about living in New Jersey (though these, I suspect, might actually have been genuine), and sometimes, worst of all, a startlingly inappropriate joke or two about why I couldn’t get into my state school.
I don’t know whether this experience has been common, but ever since early May when I enrolled in the Class of ’15 and fully assumed my role as an official Princeton Prefrosh, nothing could deter my enthusiasm. This, I know, is an experience shared by all I have met thus far, from accepted students at Preview to upperclassmen, and certainly extends to alumni (see: endowment). Despite the stereotypes emphasized by those who know Princeton only by name, I came to campus with the simplest of expectations and greatest eagerness. Two weeks into the academic year, all 1,300 of us have arrived to the place we’ve been dreaming of for the past six months/few years/entire lives and finally gotten to experience Princeton in real life. No matter how long we may have spent imagining our freshman year of college, none of us could have predicted those first few weeks on campus. Now, at the start of my third week as a Princeton student, the chaos of finding classes and making friends has started to wind down, and I have begun to reflect on the reality of what it means to be a Princetonian.
One of the events I most anticipated before arriving to college was move-in day, the thrill and terror of bidding my family goodbye and the daunting task of meeting the people I will live with for the next four years. My first memory of Princeton is walking into the dorm room to find only my roommate’s possessions, most notably two small plastic tanks containing one beta fish each, labeled #43 and #44 respectively. Upon later investigation it turns out my roommate neither conducts nor condones animal testing, the betas both have names, and exist purely for aesthetic purposes. After several nights of torrential downpour we were back on campus, and the bonding continued under less menacing conditions. Speakers during orientation repeatedly publicized Princeton’s endowment, and there is no want of evidence. From free food to water bottles to school supplies to oh-so many t-shirts (was there one for every day of orientation?) the administration ensures that no freshman will begin the year without the proper proportion of Princeton paraphernalia.
You know you’re doing okay when your college is a tourist destination. I have already grown accustomed to the groups of middle-aged foreigners snapping photos of the buildings in which I eat, sleep, and study, slyly capturing a student here and there to add authenticity. Several times in one sitting a family will walk into and around the library, smile approvingly at the hardworking Princetonians and make certain that their preschool-aged children somehow absorb the Ivy League work ethic.
Although only one full week of classes have passed, I have had more than a taste of the prospective Princeton workload, and thus begun to scout out the best spots to study, and study break. Spaces for all styles of study are plentiful, from dim basement study carrels to the long stained-glass windows of the Rotunda. Lewis, despite its abnormal architecture, is an environment of light and simplicity. My favorite, however, is the Treehouse at night, when the hanging lights reflect in the windows and appear to stretch on for miles, like something out of Harry Potter. Though it is, perhaps, the only place at Princeton where food doesn’t seem to magically appear on the tables, thank God. For that there is Murray Dodge, where students perch around the counter like hawks, swooping up cookies still so warm they melt in your hands, and disappear within minutes.
I am trying to discern which of my experiences have been typical college experiences, and which are unique to Princeton. I’m not sure in how many other colleges you’ll find prayers to John Nash scrawled desperately on the chalkboards of study rooms. I have found a billiards table within five minutes of any location on campus. I think I have been to more brunches in two weeks at Princeton than I have in my entire life. We have gone reppin orange and black at the first football game of the year (okay, the first half of the first football game of the year), and cheered just as hard for the team as for the band and their in-your-face plaid jackets. I have been offered scotch and cigars and champagne at ten in the morning by girls in pearls and boys in…argyle.
Princeton has even managed to class up the most negatively stereotyped, albeit fondly reminisced of college experiences: the party scene. I believe the Princeton experience would be incomplete without some highlights of the first few freshman forays onto the historic Street. The striking mansions lining Prospect are enough to lure any newcomer to visit, though the promise of free alcohol plays its role as well. After crossing Washington with groups of kids who were “never this fun in high school,” and scrambling to procure last-minute passes outside of Eating Clubs, clusters of rookies enter the houses doing everything to not look like freshmen, while privately gawking at the grandeur of their environment. As blasé as we may believe we appear, those with appreciation for irony will secretly delight in the scene of several hundred college kids clutching cups of Beast and jamming to Nicki Minaj, surrounded by leather couches, polished staircases, and ornate fireplaces. Freshman Street experiences so far have been a dizzying combination of frantic lines and fed up bouncers, dodging falling cups and slippery floors, nights drenched with beer both figuratively and literally, and various truly terrible pick-up lines –“Get me another drink before I realize how cute you are!”, “It’s okay if you’re not Jewish, I still want to marry you” or, slightly more direct, “¡Quiero besarte!” Social life at Princeton certainly seems to be varied, but no matter what the milieu, the characters have been fascinating.
I was told early on, by an older student, that all a place, or club, or organization really is, is a collection of people. What warrants the most attention in my reflection are the students, staff and faculty that, regardless of gothic architecture, or Eating Clubs, or lab facilities, make Princeton what it is today, and what it has been for the past couple centuries.
I have never before been in a place in which at any given time, the person next to you is more than likely to be the best in the world at something. Every person I have met has been exceptionally gifted in some field or another, and generally after a few minutes of conversation it becomes evident. I have already bought one classmate’s book of poems (there are more for sale! Find published poet T.Z. Horton, Bloomberg Hall 2nd floor), commissioned a painting by an amateur abstract artist, have had divulged the dirty details of computer assembly, and been promised lessons in sailing, Arabic, and unicycling. And while each person holds a fascinating history, a unique repertoire of talents, and a vast array of accomplishments, I have noticed that something fundamental binds Princeton students together: a common understanding of, and appreciation for, quality education and the advancement of knowledge.
I have never before been in a place in which everybody cares so strongly about his or her studies and believes so firmly in his or her own ability to succeed. Princeton students have a confidence about them; one that may derive from the selective admissions process, or the seemingly unlimited resources that empowers students to pursue their passions. This confidence surfaces during dance recitals and arch sings when audience members will whistle and call out to the performers. It surfaces after lectures when students gather around the professor to ask questions and engage in discussion. It surfaces most of all during personal conversations, when someone attempts to fervently describe his interest in physics or in poetry, the way in which his view of the world has been shaped by his this passion, and the vision he has developed, not about where he will be in twenty years, but about where he hopes the world will be. And though he may not know exactly what role he will have in the evolution of society as he knows it, what he genuinely cares about is ethical justice and scientific progress and how it will come about. This, for me, is what distinguishes Princeton.
Princeton feeds you and clothes you. Your RCA comforts you and tells you where to find the best beer. Your OA leaders advise you and upperclassmen advise you and your advisor advises you too. There are boys and girls around your hall to chat with and eat with and hog the shower and it almost feels like you never left home. We still may be in that in between stage, where Princeton feels like summer camp with an inordinate amount of reading, and to be honest I can’t imagine that feeling ever wearing off. Several times each day I am taken aback by the beauty, the individuals, and the resources that make up Princeton University. I stop and revel in the opportunities that have suddenly become tangible, the figures I’ve grown up reading about that now stand before me, offering their wisdom and knowledge face-to-face. The past two weeks have been straight out of a fairy-tale, and I hope it never ends.
But, after all, it’s only been a week, and I have yet to sit through an exam.