Involuntary confinement: The life of a grad student
This is not to say that Zeller’s death was not rooted in problems of a deeply personal nature. Indeed, his note reveals that this sad event was the result of the culmination of years of inner conflict. It is also not intended to suggest that he did not have friends and colleagues to whom he was close. Indeed, the outpouring of grief reflected in the pages of The Daily Princetonian showed the true extent to which Zeller made a positive impact on the lives of others. However, the feeling that I heard resonate most deeply with other graduate students was the despair he conveyed over his own loneliness and isolation.
The underlying question is thus: When one has issues or problems that one would not feel appropriate revealing to one’s superiors and colleagues — the latter often being your closest friends — to whom does one turn? Is it not healthy to cultivate separate personal and professional lives for this very purpose? Is such a division even feasible for a graduate student to make? As it stands, I don’t believe that such a balance is possible in the Princeton that exists today. The institutional framework as it currently exists at the Graduate School does not provide sufficient opportunities for graduate students to form meaningful links outside of one’s department. In short: We need more opportunities for human connection, and such opportunities should reflect more effort on Princeton’s part to recognize the changing demographic of the graduate student in the American university.
We, as graduate students, are much younger than we were 20 or 30 years ago. We are often unmarried. Most of us do not have children. More and more of us are entering a foreign culture for the very first time. The suburban town we see as an open, inviting and welcoming place during our March and April campus visits is not the same town we see in the quiet summers and winters we often spend here, away from our own families and friends. The Graduate School sees us as fully mature adults, and thus able to solve our own social and personal problems much more effectively than the undergraduates it guides warmly into its venerable gates, year after year. This is certainly a fair assumption. However, it also slowly sets in that the Powers That Be expect us to spend long, lonely hours in the library and lab in addition to developing the social skills necessary to one day become mentors and professors in our own right. Is this really fair? Suffice it to say, the present relationship between Princeton and its expectations of graduate students seems to create more barriers than pathways in the cultivation of such an ideal.
First and foremost, the social opportunities available to graduate students vary from department to department. There are very few spaces that are shared by graduate students from more than one department, and in some departments there are none at all. In many non-lab disciplines, graduate student life revolves around the department lounge, but not all lounges on campus are created equal. Some — like those in East Asian and Near Eastern studies — are almost nonexistent. Others, like those in mathematics, offer tea time for graduate students and professors to socialize with outside of class. However, this is still a department-centered solution haphazardly applied to a university-wide inadequacy. Contrast this with the situation at Columbia — which is perhaps the Ivy League university in least need of designated social spaces for older students — where a “tea lounge” is set up in a large seminar hall every afternoon for graduate students from all departments to come and socialize together. If Columbia’s battered finances are able to make such a space available, why can’t Princeton?
The university-wide resources currently provided to graduate students, such as Graduate Student Government and the D-Bar, do indeed serve as valuable outlets for graduate-centered events and other aspects of social life on and around campus. However, the function of each is largely biased toward the demographics of the students already poised to best take advantage of what these institutions have to offer. GSG is a group that convenes on a monthly basis and provides a space for graduate students from all departments to discuss issues confronting them as a whole. However, many of GSG’s priorities in the past year have focused on improving housing and parking resources rather than firmly defining a coherent graduate voice on campus. These are important problems, to be sure, but they are generally much more oriented toward issues of logistics and long-term campus living than to offering a place that encourages participation from first- and second-year students eager to take part in campus life. As such, an urge to join the GSG is most likely to emerge only after a student has already spent several years in residence. Such an opportunity is little comfort to those that quickly fall into despair after a semester or year when they realize that they have little or no way to make friends outside of their program or department. In such a situation, a move to Philadelphia or New York is only one step away. In one year, I have seen more than 10 first- and second-year grads across five departments make this move purely out of feelings of loneliness and exasperation.
The D-Bar is also not enough. Simply put, it is a place to drink and unwind with those you already know, not to socialize with those you don’t. It is a place where certain closely knit cohorts — such as students in the Wilson School and many engineering departments — tend to dwell together, socialize together and drink together. In other words, these are groups that would be spending time together anyway, regardless of if it was in a bar or an apartment at Hibben-Magie. As a result, those belonging to departments that are smaller, more individualistic and have few interdepartmental social opportunities quickly find themselves in a place where Princeton has chosen to allocate limited resources. If one is unable to quickly adapt in the first few weeks of the fall semester and meet a sufficiently broad range of people, one finds that the opportunities for socialization plummet shortly thereafter. But even if one does manage to maintain these relationships through the first half of the semester, how does one continue to do so? If you live a mile across campus from your friends and have no viable space to meet outside of your department, what can you do? Not much.
To add fuel to the fire, institutional barriers and a strongly insular campus culture make forging friendships with undergraduates almost impossible, even when many of us are only one or two years older than some of them. The University has certainly tried to address the issue with programs such as having graduate students live in residential colleges, which has certainly contributed greatly to making graduate students a visible presence on campus. As a resident graduate student myself, I can firmly attest that the grad students I meet who frequently interact with undergraduates — be it as other RGSs or teaching assistants — are significantly more positive and upbeat than those who do not. However, these sorts of opportunities are extremely limited. It is obvious that the residential college system and the eating clubs are significant barriers to any major attempt at undergraduate-graduate integration on any scale.
Moreover, the lack of any affiliated institution offering educational opportunities to “nontraditional” students — like Columbia’s School of General Studies — keeps undergraduates generally confined to the 18–22 age group. Many undergraduates understandably lack the ability to communicate with or relate to those who are even slightly outside of this bracket. This leads to the increased stigmatization of people and groups that do not — and cannot — participate in their narrowly constructed social context. While this forced cohesion among undergraduates is certainly a part of the “Princeton experience” that the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students is obliged to provide, the University should recognize the impact such an environment may potentially have on the larger Princeton community as a whole, as well as the resources that may be necessary to mitigate the negative consequences of this atmosphere.
What, then, can Princeton do to help graduate students struggling to connect with the community around them? The solution doesn’t seem like it would be terribly costly. Give us a space to socialize during the day, open to all graduate students, once or twice a week — if not more. Offer Graduate School-sponsored study break events with coffee, tea and cookies at central locations like Campus Club. Have singles events. Find out which departments lack sufficient resources or spaces to adequately provide social opportunities for graduate students, and find solutions for these sorts of problems.
But regardless of what the administration does, I hope it realizes that the resources it currently provides are simply not enough to help graduate students make the difficult adjustment to the often isolated environment that it has created around us. I hope it realizes that it cannot continue to think that graduate students can go without regular, extra-department social interaction and still one day grow into wise teachers and genial colleagues. Moreover, I hope it starts treating recommendations for students to go to Counseling and Psychiatric Services as a last resort and not a first option. We know that professionals are there for us if we need them, but we should not be expected to see them as a substitute for personal relationships with peers. Such a solution only deals with the symptoms of a much larger problem — a problem that may not necessarily have resulted in Bill Zeller’s sad passing, but one that maybe made us all focus a little more on our own potential isolation as well.
Cameron Moore is a graduate student in the Department of East Asian Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.