A full week before they’re set to descend on your campus, their tent is erected on the grass in front of your dorm. This isn’t just any tent. It’s a FUCKING HUGE tent, impeding your path to the dining hall, any sunlight you may have gotten sitting on the steps outside on the first warm day of the year, and also any sense you might have had that you, as an undergraduate, actually belong to the largest constituency of the University community. No, from the instant that tent goes up, a full week before 900 high school seniors are scheduled to descend on this fair campus, you are frustrated, alienated, and wishing you and your roommates hadn’t signed up to host three of them.
Don’t get me wrong, though: in theory, I actually think pretty favorably of the whole pre-frosh idea. I was dead-set against going to Princeton before my pre-frosh weekend, when meeting my host and her friends caused me to believe that I wouldn’t be hopelessly alienated here. Yeah, most of it was a gauchely ostentatious waste of my future tuition, all orange-and-black and free coffee and fancy dinners so that we wouldn’t find out how institutional the dining-hall food is until we actually got here. Most of it was awkward “Where are you from?” conversations with my fellow pre-frosh and feeling bad because my SAT score wasn’t as good as theirs. But hey, it convinced me to come—and I still, for the most part, think I made the right decision.
That’s why I had to have been one of the loudest cheerleaders for hosting pre-frosh in the entire freshman class. I talked my roommates into agreeing to take three kids on each of the two weekends, and I congratulated us almost daily for our good deed. None of us is particularly mainstream Princetonian—we’re antisocial, we don’t go out much, our politics are strictly left-wing, and we tend towards the artsy—and we (or, well, I) hoped to shepherd some poor, lost, lonely pre-frosh terrified of eating clubs, preppiness, and political apathy into a welcoming social space. But as last Thursday drew nearer, I found myself getting increasingly nervous, far out of proportion to the task of giving three high-school girls a floor to sleep on for the night. What if they were irritating, immature, or—worse yet—normal? I didn’t think I could handle it.
I met our three girls in the Holder Quad, standing with my roommate and holding up signs with their names on them—an experience surpassed in awkwardness only by my own pre-frosh weekend. We shook hands, and I learned that two were from California and one was from North Carolina. I also immediately learned, before even getting back to our room, that one was choosing between Princeton and UPenn’s Wharton School of Business, and I fervently hoped that she wasn’t as obnoxious as that sounded. If so, it was going to be a long weekend.
It’s easy to place admitted but non-matriculated college students into boxes—after all, that’s basically how they got admitted in the first place. At one of the painful frosh week dinners last fall, I remember someone asking me what I do that got me into Princeton—he volunteered that he won national math competitions. “Um, I write things? Sometimes?” I ventured. Our pre-frosh didn’t seem likely to win national math competitions, but they were along the same lines. One was a pre-professional dancer, another an opera singer. I didn’t hear what the Wharton girl’s defining characteristic was, but if she got into Wharton, she was probably brilliant at, well, Wharton-y things, so that’s something. It was all a bit déjà vu, to find myself engaging in the same types of awkward conversations I thought I’d put behind me about a month into my time at Princeton. I was thankful when my overscheduled calendar permitted me an excuse to escape.
I had many equally awkward conversations over the next two days, and some not awkward at all (though those were mostly with people who weren’t pre-frosh. Okay, fine, I had some non-awkward encounters with pre-frosh too). I came home late Thursday night to a highly involved discussion between the pre-frosh, my roommates, and one of my neighbors about the eating clubs. My neighbor waxed nostalgic about fun times at TI. Wharton and Dancer asked questions about bicker that suggested the same sort of weirdly fascinated attitude you would take with regard to an incredibly bizarre fetish or a rare insect. I interjected a comment every so often that probably made me seem about as lame as the parent chaperones at a high-school dance: “I hardly ever go out, and I have a vibrant social life!” “Not every club is like TI!” “You don’t have to bicker!” “We have four-year residential colleges now!” I gave up and returned to my homework—as someone who has been through public high school, I know when I’m running hard into social-outcast territory.
On Friday afternoon, I answered a knock on my door to be greeted by the third pre-frosh, Opera Singer, who’d been markedly silent during the eating-club conversation. She was accompanied by her mother, and I invited them both in. We had a long talk: about conservatism on campus, about the English, Music, and Comparative Literature departments, about the LGBT environment, about whether there is anyone in the student body who isn’t apathetic. I told them the truth, as far as I see it: that there isn’t a lot of left-wing activism, but that at least it’s easier for one person so inclined to make her mark on the scene. I have a poster of Allen Ginsberg on my wall, and Opera Singer went all fangirl over it; I talked to her mom about Proposition 8. When they left to get dinner, I felt as if having the pre-frosh—all of it, right down to the FUCKING HUGE tent—was worth it.
I’m beginning to think I’m actually of two minds about the lost, lonely pre-frosh who are left-wing and wary of eating clubs. Speaking purely selfishly, I want more of them. I want more people with whom to rant against the establishment, more people with whom to avoid the Street, more people with whom to linger over meals referencing American countercultural literature. I also want to culturally diversify this place, bringing it into the present by doing my small part to populate it with people who don’t fit the Princeton stereotype. I want the columnists to say things about Princeton that aren’t just along the lines of David Brooks’ “Organization Kid” and Frank Rich’s most recent column, which gets snarky at Princeton for being the home of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage. But on the other hand, I don’t want to encourage anyone to go somewhere she’ll be miserable when there are liberal-arts colleges or even Yale as alternatives. There are some people so far outside of the Ivy League stereotype that I would advise they pick any school but Princeton. I don’t want my selfish desires to ruin their lives.
But things are changing every admissions cycle. By virtue of our gender, 40 years ago neither I nor the three pre-frosh I hosted would have been permitted to apply to Princeton; less than 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have been permitted in all of its eating clubs. Now, well, I’m here, and chances are some of my pre-frosh will be here as well in five months. Yeah, maybe I would be happier if some of the pre-frosh I met stayed away from Princeton in the fall—the Wharton School, for instance, is most welcome to them. But hey, Opera Singer, if you’re reading this: come to Princeton. You might hate it, but at least you’ll be doing the institution an incredible service.