I didn’t exactly know how it would happen, but I was always sure that graduating to college would result in my instant political galvanization. I grew up learning about Vietnam War protests at universities across the country and Tiananmen Square—and, more recently, watching college students lead the charge in the Black Lives Matter movement. I figured I’d step foot onto the campus of whatever progressive liberal arts school I was accepted to, and all of a sudden, like a scene straight out of The Hunger Games, I’d fall into a fissure in the pavement. When I landed, I’d look up and find myself surrounded by dozens of literally-underground insurgents in the midst of planning their next big move against the establishment. One of them, probably wearing jeans and a ratty T-shirt from an obscure rally she had attended years prior, would step forward and hand me a leaflet or a picket sign or a bow and arrow. She’d pat me on the back. “Welcome. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Or something like that. The point is, I assumed that to be a college student would be to shed the constraints on my aspiring-activist high-school self (a regimented schedule, limited mobility, juridical minor status). With newfound independence and a network of like-minded peers, I would be able and emboldened to throw myself fully into the fight against racial and economic injustice, climate change, and gun violence.
Not so. Since moving to campus in January of this year, I have felt utterly disconnected—not just from activism, but from the goings-on of human society as a whole. Instead of escaping the confines of my childhood home to the boundless realm of college, I find myself missing the dinner conversations I would have with my parents last semester while attending Princeton from afar—brief, but enough to keep me in touch with whatever was happening outside of my classes and budding friendships. In Pittsburgh, I couldn’t be oblivious even if I wanted to: it’s hard to remain ignorant of police brutality with protest chants booming from the parking lot of the police station across the street from your house. This semester, when my parents call me, I feel like I’m playing current events catch-up. They’ll try to start a conversation about budget reconciliation or the infrastructure bill or even March Madness, and, after I quickly exhaust what little information I’ve gleaned from the New York Times notifications that pop up on my phone screen periodically, I’m forced to choose between pretending—“Mhm, mhm, agreed.”—or fessing up and asking them to explain. Undoubtedly, some students, through diligence or sheer luck, are better able to keep up with the world beyond Princeton’s gates, but my experience of abrupt severance from external life is one I’ve heard echoed by many since coming here.
This won’t surprise the Princeton veteran—the “Orange Bubble” has been thoroughly commented on. Plenty of antidotes have been offered: advice pages about road trips, traveling abroad, and fun places to get food on Nassau Street abound on the University’s admission website. In our present moment, however, Princeton’s other, temporary “bubble”—the measures it has taken to mitigate the likelihood of students’ exposure to COVID-19—naturally limits the viability of many of these solutions. Now, even when the real world makes its way to our doorstep, we often don’t hear the knock: I and several other undergraduates I know simply never found out about the recent Stop Asian Hate rally and vigil in Palmer Square. With limited in-person group interaction, cross-campus channels for political mobilization move even slower than usual, and impromptu integration into existing demonstrations is less likely. While urgent from a safety standpoint, COVID-related prohibitions on student-initiated gatherings don’t help matters.
But it can’t just be the COVID. In fact, I’d argue that the pandemic, through a sort of twisted process of elimination, has revealed certain core features of the Orange Bubble. Those dinner conversations with my parents only occurred because last fall, for the first time in history, Princeton students were almost uniformly educated away from Princeton. At the time of the announcement that we would be all-virtual, a presidential election was coming down the metaphorical pike, and I, along with many others, was looking to run the Trump administration through with a metaphorical-not-so-metaphorical pike. While I supported the University’s decision, I was disappointed at having to wait another several months for my Katniss Everdeenian arrival to campus, so, in addition to my usual election-cycle canvassing (now socially distanced!), I joined a Princeton advocacy group. Together, we participated in meaningful, collaborative political work, albeit over Zoom and Slack, as we logged our hours of calls to swing state voters every week. And so it seems to me that the Bubble isn’t some fault of the student body: people want to engage in activism. We were able to contribute, however minutely, to the deciding of real-world issues while attending classes—so it can’t be the demanding workload that’s to blame either, at least not entirely.
If students have both the desire and capacity to reach beyond the Bubble, why, then, does it exist? Paradoxically, it must be something about taking that promised step onto Princeton’s grounds that causes the membrane to form. Certainly, physical setting is a major factor. That storied campus, which to begin with is situated in an affluent suburb, is bordered on only one side by true civilization. It is circumscribed by fences. Most of its residential buildings, open areas, and activity centers are removed from public view, tucked into the bowels or placed several minutes’ walk from anything unaffiliated with the University. In short, Princeton’s spatial design is such that contact with the outside world is improbable and unnecessary. (Nowadays, I am skeptical of even the dogwood trees as I watch them bloom from the window of my cozy room in Forbes College: is the beauty of my surroundings merely a mechanism to keep me content, to maintain the illusion of utopia? And what about the U-Store and those package lockers—why is it that I don’t have to leave campus to buy toothpaste?)
It seems unlikely that these or any other facets of the Bubble are random. Apocryphal or not, the infamous claim that the narrow “entryways” of many of Princeton’s dormitories were intended to prevent collective student action is reflective of a more basic truth: it benefits the University when we’re not stirring the pot. They pen us in, clobber us with assignments and class ranks and honor codes, then tell us that they love us and placate us with free sweatshirts and the mythos of the “tight-knit community of scholars.” In return, all they ask is that we deliver them their sparkling achievement statistics and don’t make too big of a fuss when they drag their feet for years over addressing the legacies of racist Princeton presidents. To the extent that we do engage with society’s pressing issues on the University’s watch, that engagement is limited to our coursework, packaged into neat, 50-minute bites—then it’s back to the cleanliness of the Bubble. Friction is bad for business. Friction brings Princeton back to earth, makes it acknowledge ugliness and strife. Ultimately, Princeton’s status as an ivory tower is what gives it its luster; the promise of Ivy League exclusivity, of refuge from reality, is a remarkably effective marketing technique. I’ll admit it: I was wooed by Princeton’s reputation as an intellectual oasis, and I managed—quixotically—to convince myself that I could have it both ways, that I could spread my activist wings from within fantasyland.
A controlled environment is an appealing one, and control is easier to exert when we’re all in one centralized, isolated location—the Bubble—than when we’re spread across the globe. Shall I return to the Hunger Games analogy that you’re finding so illuminating? The Gamemakers are winning.
Maybe it’s not all that deliberate. Or maybe it used to be, but things have genuinely changed; maybe the Bubble of today is merely a vestige of previous, more sanitized iterations of campus culture. I don’t mean to suggest that each member of Princeton’s administration wakes up every day with an agenda to suppress student organization and dissent. But the Bubble has that effect, and it doesn’t appear to be going away on its own.
Besides, it’s not like the interior of the Bubble is free from systemic inequities. Princeton’s hermetic boundaries make it a petri dish: whatever’s inside of it already can thrive and proliferate unimpeded. Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia—all of these things are very much alive within the walls of the University (some of them much more so than in your average “real-world” setting). The remove of campus makes it easy for them to keep on living, largely without having to confront the pressures of the movements for social and economic justice that are rewriting the rules of the outside world. Princeton’s ethos is deeply flawed, and the Bubble keeps it so.
What’s to be done, and who’s to do it? We’re now beginning the long-overdue transition to a vaccinated, post-pandemic existence—to a Princeton without a bubble, lowercase b. If, as those advice pages suggested, leaving campus offers a respite from the University’s oppressive insularity, then by all means, indulge. My experiences at home last semester demonstrated, at least to me, that simple physical distance is enough to dramatically sap the power of the Bubble (capitalized). But perhaps we should ask ourselves if there aren’t better, more structural solutions than renting an RV or taking a semester abroad or grabbing dinner at Hoagie Haven. Rather than engineer the transient permeability of the Bubble, we could pop it altogether.
Which brings me to my second question: who should be the poppers? The answer, as you may have guessed, is the student body. You and me. Us. The University, whether by design or happy accident, benefits from stifled activism and discord and from the appearance of a safe haven. If we are to disrupt that appearance, if we are to make Princeton a site for engagement in the struggles and strivings of the real world—and to let the struggles and strivings of the real world truly penetrate campus culture—then we’ll have to be the ones to do it. Students—and I include myself unequivocally—must resist the temptation to succumb to the Bubble. We must make a point to stay connected to external life, and we must participate in it as fully as possible. We must remain vigilant for attempts to pull the wool over our eyes, and we must call out injustices on campus whenever we see them. We must be active. We must be angry. Against the silencing, we must be loud.