By the time you’re a senior, you recognize that the student body turns over every four years, and the faculty and physical place change inexorably, if more slowly. We ask younger students, “Did you know so-and-so?” only to realize that their time at Princeton never overlapped. The great class of 2012 is the last to talk about “New Butler,” but we are the first class ever to know a Princeton with three four-year residential colleges. We remember campus without Campus Club, but we may reflexively think of the Street as having 10 clubs instead of 11 at Reunions in 25 years.
Within those 25 years, many of my classmates will do great things, and no doubt most of them will look back to something here — a class, a club, a mentor, a friend, a late-night conversation, an early-morning epiphany — that steered them toward a dream and its fulfillment. These encounters are a product of chance — they may happen almost anywhere at any time.
Indeed, most of us can say that only part of what we love about Princeton takes place in the classroom. Whether it’s friends, extracurriculars, sports, public lectures or private dinners, we have learned a great deal and grown a great deal during conversations, late nights at the ‘Prince’ office or running around at a crisis simulation trying to keep the world precariously balanced between chaos and collapse. Our lives would be just as incomplete with only classes as they would be without any classes. In fact, the opportunities that Princeton has given us may never be equaled in any other four years of our lives.
But the fundamental complication of life at Princeton is that having so many options can be overwhelming. There are literally too many great classes to take, great professors to listen to and great books to read, all in only four years. At best, we can soak up a few in depth, brush by a few more in detail and note the rest for later. To go to every public lecture, participate in every group and never turn down a friend’s invitation would last about as long as the human body can tolerate not sleeping. In this way, Princeton is only the beginning of a lifetime in the pursuit of happiness, knowledge and excellence. That can seem frustrating, but I think the key is to see it as a kind of charm about Princeton and a lesson for life.
Fortunately, at Princeton we have plenty of role models in the pursuit of that excellence. I could list all of the professors who have encouraged us to read, think, discuss and love learning as much as Melissa S. Lane, Stephen J. Macedo, Robert P. George and so many others have for me. But that would look more or less like the course catalog books we used to get in our Frist mailboxes (which, if you’ll permit me a reprise, Princeton students will soon have forgotten ever existed).
Instead, I’ll pick the one professor who, if you’ve ever met him, demonstrates outwardly the inward spirit necessary to thrive at Princeton. Jeff Nunokawa, Master of Rockefeller College, is at any given moment likely charging up and down the hallways and pathways on the way from a sincere personal exchange with one friend to a deep conversation with another. If he’s not, he’s reading, thinking or writing about serious questions. Until we have that same energy (for most of us, figuratively as opposed to literally), we are not even scraping the surface of this place. This kind of full engagement with life and learning about big ideas and life is the real secret to Princeton.
As the Class of 2012 leaves, we feel, at best, bittersweet. We realize that there is no way to capture all of Princeton. The best solution is to chase after the things we love most, now and forever, with every ounce of energy we have: the people, the learning, the growth and the opportunities. The most important thing is to leave feeling deeply grateful to our professors, our friends and especially our families, who made it all possible. As a very smart person told me a few weeks ago, “Staying longer wouldn’t make you love the place any more.” Leaving it with these memories, however, will make us love it forever.
As we leave our seats here to the Class of 2016, we might bear in mind an old song etched in stone on the back of a relatively new building in Whitman:
“And when these walls in dust are laid / With reverence and awe / Another throng shall breathe our song / In praise of Old Nassau.”
Brian Lipshutz is a politics major from Lafayette Hill, Pa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.