So you made it past the dark jungles and snowy frostbitten peaks of high school and now find yourself gazing out at the vast unknown landscape that is Princeton. There is no all-purpose map I can give you for the road you’re about to face, but what I can give you is the most basic guide to an unknown land that every traveler needs: To you, the wide-eyed, nervous freshman — who is a friend, and who is a foe?
All the best things in the world come from study breaks. Bubble tea comes from study breaks. Chick-fil-A comes from study breaks. Tanks and t-shirts of every creed and color come from study breaks. Sometimes, puppies and massages come from study breaks.
When you are literally handed food, drink, clothing and tickets to Broadway shows and sports events in the real world, someone is usually trying to buy your vote, your affection or your body. Here at Princeton, you’re simply expected to stand in line and socialize at the bare minimum for a little while in exchange for all of life’s simple pleasures.
Better yet, as a freshman, you’ll be a target for the recruiting efforts of any and every student organization on campus, regardless of whether you’re actually interested in or useful to their mission. Dance companies, student associations, a capella groups, publications — literally everyone will be trying to ply you with free food. Enjoy it and pretend you can dance/sing/write; it’ll be a while before you’re this wanted again.
Speaking of things you should enjoy while you can: Late meal is one of those rare precious jewels that all upperclassmen covet with a bitter jealousy once they enter junior year. Built into your residential college meal plan is what’s officially called “Late Show” at Frist Campus Center; from 2-3:30 p.m. and 8:30-10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (with the unfortunate exception of Friday nights), you get a meal swipe at the Frist food gallery that’s the equivalent of $5.95 in the afternoons and $6.95 at night. The idea is to give people who might have class or practice during dining hall operating hours a place to eat.
What’s crucial is that at late meal, you can get things like pizza, cereal, quesadillas, Snapples and paninis that are somehow far more delicious than their dining hall counterparts — and since you pay with a meal swipe, it feels like it’s free.
Late meal is also valuable social time: It’s not uncommon for entire 150-person classes to travel in packs from the end of a 1:30-2:20 lecture to Frist for late meal. It’s also not uncommon for people to finish an afternoon run or a nighttime practice with a trip to late meal, or for groups of friends to congregate at Late Meal or for casual acquaintances to noncommittally exclaim, “Let’s get late meal sometime!”
Late meal is your best friend, if your best friend gave you free food twice a day and didn’t judge you for hoarding Snapples, cookies and ice cream.
Lest you be worried at this point that your Princeton experience will be defined by the constant consumption of food, fear not: Dillon Gymnasium is here to save your waistline and your favorite skinny jeans.
Dillon is everyone’s friend, but I’ve found that freshmen are generally fearful of entering its imposing doors.
That’s just silly because Dillon contains everything you could possibly want and never knew you needed: an aggressively air-conditioned, well-equipped weight room, a cardio annex with bikes, rowing machines and ellipticals, several basketball courts, squash courts, a swimming pool, a martial arts room, a multipurpose room, a dance studio, an aerobics room and a generally non-judgmental staff and population who won’t say anything if your iPod flies out of your hands and down your treadmill or if you only spend 10 minutes at a light jog (the varsity athletes go to Jadwin, don’t you worry).
On top of that, the yearly dodgeball tournament is held in Dillon Gym — by the time it rolls around in the spring, you will have made enough campus allegiances to understand how serious dodgeball is — along with the USG’s free Zumba classes.
Try to go at odd hours of the day; when classes end at 4:30, it’s virtually impossible to find a free treadmill.
In the shadowed lands of Princeton, there is one foe that rises above all others to spread the most suffering, sow the most seeds of discontent and, I can say without exaggeration, produce the most freshman tears. I speak of course of the most cunning and evil of all enemies: the Writing Seminar, the Sauron of all foes before which all other ills and maladies (see: the lockout policy, the confounding new locks, intro classes, precepts for intro classes, precepts) pale in comparison.
Writing Sem is sort of like being stabbed in the gut every week for a semester, and then finding out at the end that you were being secretly poisoned at the same time.
Unlike a bad class or seminar, you can’t drop Writing Sem, place out or switch into another one. Just as one does when trapped in quicksand, you must simply accept.
The idea behind Writing Sem is innocuous and well-intentioned enough: in order to ensure all graduates are able to write at an equal academic level, freshmen are sorted into seminars with ostensibly interesting topics and taught how to make well-reasoned, well-written arguments by trained academics.
The problem is that in order to make said well-reasoned, well-written arguments in any field, more research and dedication is required than both the student and the instructor can afford.
About a third of the way through your first assignment, you’ll realize that your paper on Harry Potter won’t be novel or interesting because you’re writing against scholars who have spent their entire careers thinking about Harry Potter, your instructor has 14 other topics to think about and you only have time to read the Wikipedia page for Hermione Granger and the concluding chapters of the first three books you saw in Firestone. You will be frustrated.
You will pull your first all-nighters writing admittedly awful papers that you simply do not care about. You will develop irrational antipathies toward your instructors.
You would bond with your classmates over your shared traumatic experiences. But thanks to days when your paper is workshopped by your classmates — who are being graded based on how harshly they judge you — you will simply end up fearing them.
And when you’re done with Writing Sem, you will never want to write again.
Until, of course, you join the 'Prince.'