“Incremental” is the word that springs to mind when I think of my transition to college. First at home, then on campus but with remote classes, and now about as close to what I envisioned when I applied as I think we’re likely to get for some time.
That incrementality has afforded me convenient opportunities for self-assessment. At the beginning of each semester, I’ve said to myself, somewhat obviously, “This isn’t like last time!” In most respects, that change has been positive. Connecting with peers is a lot more organic and fulfilling now than it was last year, when every pre-planned FaceTime and stilted dining hall conversation was tinged with a sense of obligation, almost as if it were a chore. And in-person classes are nice, even if they’re not as transcendent as I had imagined them. This view of my first three semesters as discrete rather than parts of a cohesive “college experience” has also helped me identify what I need to feel okay. In my first-year fall, I was grounded by the meals I ate with my parents each night; now I know to give them a call around dinnertime whenever I’m coming unmoored.
At the same time, incrementality has made me acutely aware of the safety net slipping away. Before, I could fall back on the vague notion that it was an abnormal time to be a student to excuse unhealthy habits like staying up all night to work or holing up in my room because socialization was scary. This go-around, I’m forced to look inward and challenge myself to grow.
The process of orienting to Princeton campus and commencing my studies compares better to a deluge than the languid spit of quarantine. That’s not to say it hasn’t been enjoyable: it has been, immensely, and there’s nowhere I would rather be than here, in my First College suite. It’s just been a lot.
In all honesty, this is the first time I have paused my Princeton experience in order to practice introspection. I have, intentionally, floated along this torrent of activity without real attention to how I am faring. And that’s something I’ve never been great at, but here in particular it’s difficult to get a bearing. In a spatial sense, it took me longer than expected to find my way on campus; I never received a tour, never visited campus before landing here in August. Temporally, the density of this last month seems to expand its duration: it has felt like a long time. This is all to say I am fumbling through this incipient experience; one that has been distorted from an altogether more whole experience with which I am also unfamiliar, as a first year, as the oldest brother.
In general, I think this practice of constant acclimation without real introspection can yield some benefits: I am more maneuverable; I’m not homesick in the traditional sense; I am unimpeded by issues that might have otherwise flung me into a vortex of discontent. Moments like this, though, when I can take a moment to absorb that idea—drink that rain—are incontestably valuable to orient myself towards a more conscious river through Princeton.
The crowd outside Colonial is sweaty, loud, and not a little tipsy. I can hear music blaring from inside, but we’re all trapped on the lawn wondering what the hell is going on. It’s a mix of sophomores and freshmen, all members of the underclass with no eating club of their own to patronize. I feel as young as I have ever felt, a kindergartner thrust into the chaos of the school bus after the last bell.
It’s almost like being in a pack of rabid animals, people nearly scratching at the windows for a taste of the party. Everyone is itching to make up for the lost year. I hear later that there was a riot, that I made a good choice to go home at 11:30 instead of 3:00, that dancing in a haze of beer and sweat is not all that fun anyway.
I go to sleep at 1:00 and wake up with an intense fear that I’ve missed out on something fun. I am constantly afraid that I have missed something, now. Every class and gathering is treasured, purely because it is happening in person. I dread what will happen if I miss a minute of it, take a moment for granted. I also dread what will happen if anyone gets sick. This is the new normal, stuck between dread and delight, exhilarated at the promise of Real College and frightened of the consequences thereof. What if it all goes wrong?
Waiting for the other shoe to drop is pretty boring, though, so for now I’ll keep clawing my way into terrible parties with anyone and everyone else. This is what we have, and this is what we’re doing.
To put it bluntly: I feel like I have entirely lost control, and yet I’ve never had more freedom in my life. Due to word count, I’ll stick to two issues: sleep and time.
Firstly, sleep: I sleep a lot. I can be a monstrous person when sleep-deprived and a delightful one when well-rested. Last year, doing Princeton from my childhood bedroom at my desk rotated 90 degrees so that only my wall and window were visible from my Zoom box, my time was my own. I woke up when I wanted and I slept when I wanted. My only source of noise pollution was my brother, who often plays video games at night and loudly yells at his online teammates and opponents, but if I yelled back at him enough and banged on his door, then I could be reasonably certain of silence. Here at Princeton, I have no such guarantee—my roommates generally go to bed far later than I do, their alarms (which sometimes are snoozed ten or fifteen times) make my brain rattle (I hate waking up to alarms and avoid it whenever possible), and on Thursday and Saturday nights, my sleep is often disrupted by Street pilgrims—my First College room is on the ground floor and perfectly en route from all the other res colleges.
Secondly, time. I never used to use Google Calendar for anything other than birthdays and Zoom calls. Now it rules my life, because my poor little paperback day-journal cannot send me notifications nor handle the amount of fluctuation that my schedule undergoes on a daily basis (i.e., there are only so many times you can cross out a handwritten event before the new event is entirely illegible). Every week my Google Calendar looks like a dozen Mondrians layered on top of each other, and I have a new notification—whether it be to go to my COS precept or brush my teeth—at least every forty-five minutes. The chaos is unruly; I’ve always been bad with numbers, and it seems that dates are no exception. The number of times I’ve misread my calendar in just the past week is at least seven.
And yet there’s also freedom, and the new experiences that come with that. I’ve done mundane things like buy myself a vegan gingersnap cookie and spontaneously canoe for an entire morning with people I’ve just met. During the past year I forgot how to form memories—i.e., by engaging in memorable experiences—because part of how I kept myself sane was by keeping my life predictable. No, I can’t control how much sleep I get. But there was something delightfully serendipitous about my 12 p.m. nap yesterday, which led me to run into someone I met at a summer camp three years ago, because I uniquely happened to be going to my next class from the direction of my dorm. And my calendar is not bursting its seams with mind-numbing Zoom webinars or identical walks around the same block I’ve lived on my entire life—instead, every single day has enjoyed something unpredictable—whether that something was enjoyable or not. Each of these experiences, in other words, has forced me to adapt, something which, after the first few months of the pandemic, I completely forgot how to do. Now it’s a skill I’m gaining again, and I’m glad of it, as challenging as it may be—because that’s, after all, why I applied to Princeton: I love a challenge, whether abstractly academic or profoundly personal.