Reflections on the End of an Undergraduate Career

I read so much, in my scholarly life, about young people whose minds were broadened and whose lives were changed and whose souls took wings when they spent three or four years within quads and cloisters. It is strange to think that my time as an undergraduate is nearly at a close, and conceptually difficult to wrap my head round as well: after all, my career in quads and cloisters is far from over, yet this special time of golden youth that the poets elegize won’t come round again, and I can’t help wondering if I’ve made the best use of it. I go up and down, day by day: today the weather is beautiful and the leaves are spreading out over the great trees that ring the quad, and I am sitting on my window seat and feeling grateful. My father is visiting me today, and I’ve been able to introduce him to many friends and mentors (and give him a bound copy of my thesis) and feel proud of how many connections I’ve made, how much good work I’ve done, these past few years. Other days maybe the weather isn’t so nice, and I struggle to be the best friend and the best scholar and the most open-hearted person I can be, and I sink into dark moods and wonder whether it was all worth it. But today, happily, I feel rather balanced, rather at peace, sad to put my life in boxes again in a few weeks, but ready nevertheless, excited to travel in continental Europe this summer and then to move to Britain come autumn.

The University sent we seniors a long and detailed survey about our lives these past four years, and told us that we can’t collect our caps and gowns and other graduation accoutrements unless we complete it. I also heard a rumor that our responses are actually read, so I took some time and some honesty with the final, free-response questions. I wanted to share some excerpts, because I want to illustrate how it’s possible to leave this rather strange place a little bit bitter but still profoundly grateful—how possible it is to be extremely ambivalent about Princeton and to value it while simultaneously being skeptical about some of its most visible aspects. When that column about Annual Giving that I wrote for the Daily Princetonian attracted so much vitriol a couple months back, I was disappointed to see how little space there is here for a discourse of nuance and complexity surrounding students’ and alumni’s relationships to their alma mater. When I wrote my comments on this survey, I wanted to give balance and ambivalence another go:

I have not necessarily found it easy, over the past four years, to find a “home” at Princeton. Too often, in my experience, the attempts to artificially inculcate community through university or residential-college team spirit, and the overwhelming attitude of orange-and-black exceptionalism that dogs eating-club culture, overshadow what is truly remarkable about forming connections and community with other people here. I have flourished through close friendships and mentoring relationships with faculty and grad students, and found a few close friends my own age. I feel at home here when I’m sitting on a university policy committee, talking to faculty at a reception after an academic talk, in a meeting with my thesis advisor, or lingering after dinner at my co-op, talking about ideas or just complaining about my day. But all this community has come at the expense of a powerful sense of exclusion from “mainstream” Princeton. It has been years since I attended a major undergraduate event like Lawnparties; I don’t feel as if I belong at even the undergraduate events that attempt to be most inclusive, like this fall’s Orange and Black Ball. Princeton has given me the opportunity to achieve academically beyond my wildest dreams, but I have a lingering sense of regret that I haven’t been able to have a normal undergraduate experience because I feel like such a cultural misfit.

Yet, over the past four years, I have grown from a child into an adult, and from a student into a scholar. Thanks to intellectual and moral support from my academic mentors, I began to see myself as someone capable of carrying out large-scale research and of making innovative intellectual discoveries, and then I actually did that, writing an original and smart senior thesis into which I poured my soul and my intellect and of which I’m extremely proud. Princeton helped me logistically to write that thesis: through preparation from my writing seminar to my departmental independent work; through extremely good academic advising (my thesis advisor is truly a gentleman and a scholar); through financial support that enabled me to do copious research overseas and (in a few weeks) to present my research at a conference alongside senior faculty; through the provision of a life-changing opportunity to study abroad at the same university that my research subject attended. But as important to the process were the books I’ve read in my classes and in my spare time, the conversations I’ve had, and the interpersonal connections I’ve made that have helped me to bring a truly humane element to my scholarship. In all honesty, I’ve spent more of my time here frustrated that the opportunities for those conversations and connections aren’t thicker on the ground than I have spent inspired by the ones that have materialized. Yet I’ve learned that this is a place where academic drive and ambition make all kinds of remarkable conversations and connections possible. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to grow out of Princeton and out of being an undergraduate, and I wouldn’t feel emotionally and intellectually capable of moving to another country and beginning graduate school next year.

On another note, I’m a member of the 2 Dickinson St. Co-op, and I think it’s worth emphasizing to my reader how special that place is, and how unlike any other part of Princeton. It’s an organic community (the fruits and vegetables, literally!), in which each participant has a stake and commitment, and it’s a building in which one always feels at home. Our membership is the most diverse of any organization I’ve been involved in, from freshmen to post-docs and everyone between, including students who have taken time off or otherwise have a broader diversity of life experiences than your average, say, eating club. We cook tremendous food, we are moderate and mature social drinkers, we have talent shows and go on hikes, we sit outside in the hammocks on our porch and read for pleasure. Some of our members who aren’t in grad school already are grad-school-bound, but those who aren’t are equally intellectually curious, invested in their coursework and independent work and in the idea of a collegial academic community such as is extremely rare among undergraduates here.

This is all to say that I know that the administration are interested in learning how to build more close-knit and intellectually and socially stimulating communities here, and have struggled with how to encourage the ones that are healthy and discourage the ones that aren’t. 2D is a community that I think those who make decisions at this university often forget about–and while perhaps that’s one reason that we’ve flourished so organically and autonomously for decades (learning to manage our own efficient and successful financing and accounting system, for instance), it seems to me that the University may well want to take an interest in what we’re doing and how well we’re doing it. 2D and the other co-ops could be models for how to build communities elsewhere on campus that are truly student-driven, self-sustaining, and socially healthy.

And now I’m off to read and write, to socialize, to think and feel, to see if I can squeeze in any more soul-growing in these last few weeks—after all, golden youth doesn’t end until the fifth of June!

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