It was the first night without my parents in some hotel on US Route 1. I was alone and somewhere near East Pyne, brimming with the feeling of being lost and alone in a new city, juggling the oversized, color-coded freshman orientation specialty map that a volunteer organizer had gravely slipped into my purse. Possibilities of love and art and shitty beer seemed to rise up from the slate like mist, everything thrown out across the bricks, sifting low and floating like a lifted blanket. Here: take anything you can stuff into your backpack. Alone, and I felt like I could belong at Princeton.
* * *
By the end of the second day I had changed my mind. It wasn’t that I felt I’d made the wrong decision coming here; in most respects, the first two days of orientation had passed perfectly. My suitemates were lovely and brought Double Stuff Oreos, I didn’t have any outstanding medical forms or web lectures to complete, and I’d met a formidable amount of nice people. But most of my interactions with the people I met, especially with other freshmen, felt more like job interviews. The implicit question: What makes you deserve to be here?
Sometimes it was subtle. Conversations casually spun to the listing of extracurriculars and AP scores, offhand mentions of competitions won and gavels collected. But the more I listened, the more it became unsettling. I noticed classmates starting to recite pitches of their own passions, desperate to prove that their interests matched up to the greater social fabric of the Princeton we’d only read about in College Prowler student forums and Fitzgerald novels. I found myself echoing back, trying on personas like new hats. Hi, I’m Rachel Stone. Slumming it in Wilson, you? No I haven’t chosen a major yet, I think potentially Woody Woo with a certificate in Latin American Engineering or Integrated Slavic Literature.
No one talked about being intimidated, spending the summer biting their nails and drafting schedule spreadsheets. I assumed I was the only one. What makes you deserve to be here?
* * *
My high school had been a Petri dish of external stress. We announced when we were going to completely fail that bio quiz, and guarded our post-exam feeling of dizzy relief so the knowledge of not failing could sustain us for the next round. I was used to communal angst. During my very first class at Princeton (RUS 101, where the sheer number of classmates fluent in conversational Russian and the occasional speaker of Tajik made it clear to me that I would not be receiving an A), I was braced to commiserate. The only other inexperienced freshman had spent the whole class stunned silent, staring across the room at the blackboard like she wanted to run through it. I had grinned at her to express my mutual anxiety, about to make some inane comment on how we would be just fine if we smuggled iTranslator apps into our oral exams, but instead she blinked quietly and forcefully. What makes you deserve to be here?
At Princeton, no one wants to be the one who’s lost. To compensate, we’re stuck attempting to live up to the conception of the People We Are Supposed to Be in college, students who were accepted because of the auto-constructed identities we jammed into 500-word slots. Like impressing an interviewer with credentials we can’t live up to, all of us new students seem to be compelled to define ourselves based on what we already promised. Trying too hard, wearing designer dresses to a diner date.
* * *
It was after the first real Monday that I spewed all of this to a new friend, someone who asked me why my eyebrows were doing something weird and probably wasn’t expecting any of the rant. I assumed she would express pity, smile and say that although she couldn’t understand why I was having such a hard time the first week, there were always tutoring resources. Instead, she agreed—walked me back to dinner at Forbes where I sat with five other people who admitted to feeling the exact same thing. In the dimness of the dining hall we debated the qualities of preceptors and reading strategies, spoke of lectures and auditions and our shared sense of dawning dread, and halfway through my first plate of ambiguous grilled vegetables, I knew that we were all going to end up okay if we could stay genuine.
So fellow freshmen, I propose a revolution. Let’s not take fours years to get weird. Let’s make it okay to be vulnerable, to admit to being lost emotionally and physically and transcendentally. Let’s tear off our Teflon, stretch our palms wide and strip down to our sunburned skin. We can only transform into the people we want to be by calling bullshit on our own paranoia, by forgetting what we’re trying to prove and by reframing what we’re desperate to become. Let’s all take Slavic languages and krump at DiSiac auditions, forget that college can be cold and alienating and that our parents are in different time zones. Let’s try to be honest, to graduate without dissolving into the Stepford soul of the place.
I see glimpses of us in between trays at Wilcox, under floorboards in Hagan Dance Studio and in amongst the ether. Quick, flashing illumination. An Incident: The first official weekend night and my friend swiftly lost a beer pong game, lingered too long at Cloister and was hit in the back by a foaming tide of hurtled beer. Before the culprits could duck out of the main room, he turned around to face me, expression radiant with pure, intoxicated incandescence. A Moment of Honesty: Post-PUB rejection, understanding that who I had been in high school would need to become completely different. Something That Might Embarrass Me in Three Weeks: Reading Thucidydes while trying not to think too hard about failing RUS 101, resulting in way over-empathizing with the Melians and weeping openly in the Julian Street library. An Image That Will Never Materialize: All 1,931 of us sprawled out on the grass at Lawnparties, feeling the dew-drenched dirt between our fingers and blocking our eyes from the sun. Objective Facts: We have never experienced anything remotely like college, and can’t possibly be as prepared for it as we hope other people think we are. We aren’t polished. We have pimples. We have absolutely no idea what to do with all of our alcohol. We are still raw. We deserve to be here.
* * *
Today is the first day that feels like autumn. I’m walking back from McCosh and don’t regret not bringing a coat until it starts to pour, cold rain seeping through the canvass of my sneakers and pooling inside. I lift my arms from where they’re shielding my face and tip my head backwards, mascara welling under my eyes and rain tangling my hair. I feel ridiculous and romantic and wet. I know now that if I fail at Princeton I would want to fail supremely, to fail fighting like a hero gunned down spectacularly over a towering balustrade. I want to stay lost enough so that every arch seems new and everything’s so beautiful you could fill yourself with it. I’ve already lost my map.