All Princeton students have heard or offered this common Princeton maxim at some point or other. “Princeton will pay for anything” most often comes up in the context of the University’s generous travel grants, which allow students to research, explore and study in Paris, Moscow or really anywhere that strikes their fancy. The proverb can take one of two forms, depending on the tone of the speaker: I have heard it sung out with the smug delight of those accessing the well-endowed, generous funds of an exclusive club. Alternatively, the mantra is often uttered with the disbelieving awe of a student standing in the presence of limitlessness. While the second attitude is more palatable than the first, the words express a sentiment that, regardless of tone, is uncomfortably reminiscent of entitlement.
Thanks to the University’s priorities and resources, Princeton students have unique and incredible travel opportunities. Every summer, a typical student’s friend network gets stretched over several continents. Spending break in some foreign, exotic locale is considered cool, but not unusual.
Most of the students benefiting from travel funding are using their grants in a responsible fashion, engaging in research, language immersion or service programs that are maximally effective abroad. However, the availability of liberal funding can be exploited. When student travelers are enrolled in structured programs, say language classes at an accredited university, their time and money tend to be well spent. More flexible summer projects, including research and cultural immersion, leave room for abuse. There are academic departments that will hand out chunks of change (the amount varies from several hundred to several thousand) in response to funding applications that commit the applicant to very little in return.
Applications include a summer proposal, a budget plan and a post-project report. Budgets, however, can be rewritten, and reports may emphasize certain aspects of a trip that were not, in fact, its focus. I have heard of more than one case where a student wants to take an overseas vacation and decides that the University should pay for it. In their applications to a mildly relevant department, these opportunists emphasize the cultural or sociological aspects of their trip and promise to write an essay about their experience later on.
A common attitude toward Princeton’s openhandedness is, if the University is willing and able to pay, why not take advantage? Princeton is a wealthy institution with a lot of money to spend; this year’s operating budget is around $1.5 billion. The departments supporting foreign travel can well afford their handouts. There is a difference, however, between can and should. Students can theoretically apply to the Program in Judaic Studies for funding to experience life on an Israeli kibbutz but spend most of their time clubbing in Tel Aviv. One weekend is all the experience they require to write a satisfactory post-project report. While the University can afford to sponsor your “cultural” summer tour of Tel Aviv nightclubs, you certainly should not be using University funding for that purpose.
Campus attitudes toward Princeton funding could use a little more thoughtfulness. The phrase “Princeton will pay for anything” reflects a casual certainty in the institution’s money that I find frankly childish. In actuality, most students use funding responsibly, but by uttering or even laughing at the mantra above we feed a general mindset that regards University funding with less respect than a parent’s credit card. In many ways, such an attitude indicates an immature lack of understanding over the meaning and value of money. No matter where it comes from, a thousand dollars would be considered a significant windfall to many people. The reaction to receiving such a grant should extend beyond gleeful celebration — there should be recognition of responsibility and a commitment to using the funding appropriately.
And no, Princeton cannot “pay for anything.” A recent report on the University’s budget for 2012-13 notes the effects of the recession and recommends “continued budgetary discipline.” Bearing in mind that Princeton is not a bottomless gold mine, students should approach the distribution and handling of the institution’s money carefully and thoughtfully.
The abundant travel funding opportunities at Princeton are offered by the school and by individual departments with a certain objective in mind. They provide as many safeguards as possible (budget outline, letters of recommendation) to ensure that we are serious about our summer projects, but short of sending a supervisor with us, departments cannot force students to use their money responsibly. Before applying for aid, we need to ask ourselves honestly whether our goals match the department’s requirements. Our extensive access to funding is a rare privilege.
Respect and responsibility, not abuse, are in order.
Tehila Wenger is a sophomore from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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