Two weeks ago, I encouraged the visiting prefrosh to figure out if they would feel like they would belong and to accept a place here if they do. Belonging is a powerful thing, so I’d like to return to the topic. An essential aspect of belonging is having that intimate atmosphere, where you feel like you know people, people know you and you have something valuable to contribute. Everyone has his or her own Princeton experience, but if that experience is shared with others, belonging is an integral a part of that sharing. We’re involved in eating clubs, residential colleges, sports teams and extracurricular activities. Princetonians have organized themselves into little communities and little communities are much better at making people feel like they can contribute to something in which they have a stake, and contributing to something one has a stake in is an essential aspect of developing a sense of belonging in a large and intellectually diverse campus.
We’re clearly never going to know every individual on campus, even if we had the time to meet-and-greet everyone else. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar conducted research on primate social group sizes and primate brains and extrapolated that human brains are capable of sustaining social group sizes of 148, with a 95 percent confidence interval of 100-230. It’s an interesting theory because it suggests that the average person is never going to develop meaningful relationships with more than a handful of size-limited groups, and it is likely that more relationships beyond that number will have to come at the cost of the quality of those relationships.
Getting personal requires small settings. Take the old Wu Dining Hall, for example, the way it was when it was being renovated, during my freshman year. The food and interior design were terrible, on account of the renovations. But it was a small community. Many Butler College residents crossed Elm Drive to eat in Whitman College, and Wilson College had their own dining hall in a tent. Wu was fairly empty, which made it more acceptable to go over to a stranger and introduce yourself. The regulars would become familiar faces, and the familiar faces became friends. There were people I never met, but for the most part, I felt that the small old Wu was a place that facilitated developing friendships and exploring new interests based on those friendships. It was a place I would meet hallmates, which was crucial living in 1915 Hall, where the only common spaces are the bathrooms.
All that changed sophomore year. The renovated Wu-Wilcox dining hall had delicious food and was spacious and beautiful, but it was rarely intimate. Of course the closeness was gone: Once the dining hall was renovated, Wucox was always crowded. To fill the gap created by the disappearance of the small setting, Butler had to step up with events orchestrated by the residential college to woo people back into smaller settings.
Small settings make it easier to get a feeling of contributing. Most people can’t have that feeling in a group of 5,000 or even 500. We need sports teams, on the varsity, club and IM levels, and we need organizations with goals to achieve. Focusing our creative and productive energies toward making unique things happen makes people belong because it means that they know how they are valuable. The organizations to which I’ve contributed — Outdoor Action, International Relations Council, the opinion section of this paper and my eating club — are valuable parts of my Princeton experience which have helped forge my love for this place. I felt like I was doing something positive and productive, which made me feel a sense of belonging.
Even if you can be productive alone, it’s scary to be without people who you feel value you. That’s why so often the large all-campus events, such as the Orange and Black Ball devolve into groups of friends who stick together for the duration of the event. Of course people gravitate toward their closest friends when surrounded by strangers at those kinds of events, which defeats the goal of forging an all-campus sense of community. Lawnparties avoids this tendency to some extent because students move from performance to performance according to their differing tastes, and therefore groups change as individuals join along the way or part ways to go to different clubs.
The interaction of people within overlapping social circles is what I think the Princeton community does so well. You need to have a smaller identity alone, outside of just being a student. Undergraduates are pretty capable of finding a niche for themselves and creating welcoming places for others, if the University maintains a strong foundation of fostering small group interaction and contributions based on mutual interests and passions, rather than based on similarity of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. That’s why so many Princetonians feel like they belong and part of the reason why so many alumni give back after graduation. Belonging matters, and the best way to go about it is to create your own little Princeton through involvement in small groups.
Christopher Troein is an economics major from Windsor, England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/05/04/30890/