I’m very excited for you. I write this letter in the sincere hope that you enjoy the Preview weekend and that these couple days help you figure out what to do with the next four years.
I was motivated to write this letter because I wanted to talk about ambivalence. Ambivalence will serve you well no matter where you go, but particularly around here. I have often found it extremely difficult at Princeton to untangle the good from the bad. I hope that an honest, direct account of my personal impressions of the institution and its community will be useful to someone with similar concerns and interests.
It’s very possible that you’ve already sensed this already, merely from the carefully arranged Preview event, but it’s worth saying anyway — Princeton is a highly paternalistic institution. Once you have become a student here, most of the spaces where you live, eat, and socialize will be directly or indirectly structured by the University.
Unlike at many other schools, off-campus housing is financially inaccessible to the majority of students. With limited possibilities for opting out of University dormitories, you will have little choice but to sacrifice much of the autonomy and privacy which adulthood may entail elsewhere. This means random room inspections, Public Safety officers parked outside your window or knocking on your door, and gender-binary bathrooms. For those students who opt out of University dining halls and eating clubs, access to clean kitchens is frequently inadequate.
Sometimes Princeton feels like a pre-packaged experience, which discourages students from making their own choices about where and how to live, eat, and socialize. Meanwhile, this pre-packaged Princeton experience seems to be organized around the interests of middle-class white students at the expense of the needs of students of color and those from low-income and first-generation backgrounds.
But Princeton’s rigidly paternalistic structure does not mean that change is impossible in the face of determined student organizing. This past year, advocates of gender-inclusive housing succeeded in winning needed reforms. I am truly excited that sophomores, juniors, and seniors now have the option of drawing rooms in mixed-gender groups.
Unfortunately, the onus for contacting University Housing Services about housing needs still falls on first-years — a fact which should be made clear to prospective students. There are also plenty of other steps that need to be taken for students’ welfare, such as an option for students to take a semester-long leave of absence for mental health or other reasons.
Still, I’ve been deeply inspired by those around me who resist the pressures to live the same way and pursue the same future. I’ve had truly amazing professors, many of whom have had no qualms in calling out the University on issues such as its poor treatment of workers or refusal to divest from prisons and detention centers. I’ve discovered communities like the WPRB radio station or Students for Prison Education and Reform.
Despite the propensity of administrators to dismiss student activists as “disrespectful” — a charge which I have personally encountered — the reality is that even the wealthy, entitled alumni and out-of-touch administrators cannot stifle student demands for institutional accountability. The recent renaming of spaces for Toni Morrison and Sir Arthur Lewis, a direct result of organizing by the Black Justice League, is only the most recent example of the power which small groups of dedicated students can have.
When I visited as an admitted student, I did not anticipate the many complex feelings and relationships that I have since come to associate with this university. Perhaps I would have been better prepared for life here if I had allowed myself to appreciate my initial sense of ambivalence. I encourage you to embrace feelings of uncertainty along with the excitement, as they may turn out to serve you well.
Max Grear is a Spanish and Portuguese major from Wakefield, R.I. He can be reached at email@example.com.