In 1910, Woodrow Wilson, President of Princeton, and Andrew West, the first dean of the graduate school, waged a fierce battle over the placement of the graduate college. Wilson wanted the college to be a scholarly model of learning placed in the center of campus for all to see, while West wanted it to be located off the main campus, free from the distractions of undergraduate life. To support his claim, West found a benefactor willing to donate $500,000 provided the University follow West’s plan, but Wilson refused to give in.
This lead to headlines like “PRINCETON FACES A CRISIS” and “STANDING FOR PRINCIPLE COSTS PRINCETON HALF A MILLION AND MORE.” Wilson had already made enemies when he proposed to replace the eating clubs, which he saw as elitist, but he was able to hold West at bay. That is, until West was named co-trustee in the multi-million dollar estate of another benefactor. Headline: “BIG GIFT ENDS CLASH.” Wilson shortly left Princeton to become the governor of New Jersey and then President of the United States. Even then, his actions at Princeton chased him as alumni attacked his presidential campaign. Headline: “OLD PRINCETON FIGHT RENEWED ON WILSON: Social Set Never Forgave Him for Insisting on Equality in College Life.”
Nearly 100 years later, I arrived at Princeton to pursue a Ph.D. I knew it would be stressful, but I promised myself that I would continue to pursue extracurriculars. I am fond of the line attributed to Mark Twain — “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” However, for an ardent sousaphone player like myself, this would mean joining the Princeton University Band.
Undergrads display a range of responses when they find a grad student in their midst. At worst, we get a look of disgust as the undergrad retreats to the safety of their own kind. Or we sometimes become a curiosity to be interviewed. “Really? Why are you here?” they ask, as if they just found a goat in the bathroom.
Having been warned about the reputation of grad students among undergrads, I was discreet about my true nature. Much like how Princeton students will say they go to school in New Jersey to avoid dropping the P-bomb, when asked if I was a freshman I simply agreed that it was my first year at Princeton. That lasted about a day; my cover failed when I was asked about Outdoor Action. But despite my fears, I found the bandies were fiercely welcoming. In this case, the grad-undergrad divide was easy to cross, and I quickly made friends.
I distinctly remember my first trip out to the Street: Princetoween 2008. I was struck by how many people I recognized from the Grad College. But then I realized: Where else would they go? Since undergrads are guaranteed on-campus housing and the eating clubs provide “free” beer, Princeton has no need for a college town area with bars that cater to students and shared houses for house parties.
As I continued my grad career, I took on many roles that have shown me many angles of Princeton. I spent four years working at the Debasement Bar and recently stepped down as czar (co-manager), having achieved my goal of carrying blueberry beer. I got out of the campus bubble as a volunteer firefighter and then created a firefighting student group with some undergrads so we could share the awesome experience with other students. Two years ago I became a Resident Graduate Student in Rockefeller College, a goal I’d had since my first braised rib night in Rocky Dining Hall.
I believe there is something off about grad-undergrad relations at Princeton, and I know I’m not alone. The administration certainly must have seen a problem if it created the RGS program, which dedicates scarce dormitory space to show undergrads that grad students are people too. The good news is that it could be worse; type in “sketchy grad student” and Google fills in “Stanford.”
There are many theories as to why these relations are so awkward. Certainly some grads are in a different phase of life that makes it hard to relate to undergrads. People point to Princeton’s size, location or status as a liberal arts college that’s also a research university (or vice versa). These things contribute, but I think there’s something even more specific to Princeton. My own explanation goes back to the legacy of Andrew West and the placement of the Graduate College, which created a precedent for distinguishing between grad territory and undergrad territory.
What undergraduates might not realize is that so much of Princeton University is theirs, even beyond geography. Academically, Princeton prides itself on its focus on undergraduate education. Princeton’s biggest traditions — Pre-Rade, Cane Spree, Lawnparties, Dean’s Date, Houseparties — are at least focused on, if not exclusive to, undergraduates. The Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni does have a Reunions tent, but I bet more grad students plan on meeting at the 25th than at the APGA. Then there is the Street, undoubtedly the social center of Princeton, and — despite Terrace’s best efforts — undoubtedly undergrad.
I certainly don’t object to Princeton’s undergrad focus or its myriad of traditions. I think I’ve marched in the famous P-Rade 10 times and look forward to the next. Nor do I think that there shouldn’t be territory designated to undergrads. What I do object to is the lack of shared spaces, physical or otherwise. Campus Club is certainly a step in the right direction, but it’s going to have to go beyond its current offerings to become an attractive option for undergrads and grad students.
I think the lack of shared space explains how Princeton got to where it is, but we still get to decide what to do with it. I have found there is much to be gained by sharing. I like to think I have been able to offer my undergrad friends a unique perspective on the trials of college and what parts of the experience truly matter looking back. At the very least, I shared what’s easily the best pub quiz in Princeton with my over-21 undergrad friends at the D-Bar.
Undergrads also have a unique perspective to share with grad students, who can easily get lost in dissertation work and libraries. Talking about their goals for the future has helped remind me why I became a grad student in the first place. There is also much about Princeton that grads cannot understand unless undergrads share it with them. I am convinced the Triangle Club’s freshman week show should be part of grad student orientation.
With undergrads I have also run a Tough Mudder, explored Barcelona and performed Disney songs inside the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall. In my mind, these memories aren’t distinct from my grad student adventures, like the 2 a.m. road trip to Atlantic City, the ski trip to Killington or the picnic on the banks of La Seine. All these memories simply blend together as remarkable experiences with people I like, some of whom happened to be pursuing bachelor’s degrees.
Tom is a fifth-year grad student in the politics department from Minnesota (via Cornell).