When I graduated from high school, every member of our class received a book called “The Noticer.” I didn’t read the book, but Amazon says that the story revolves around a mysterious man named Jones who has been given a gift of noticing things that others miss. There’s nothing in particular about the story that prompted me to write this letter. But I always remembered the title, because I wanted to be able to describe myself as a “noticer” like Jones.
I want to believe that I’ve noticed a lot in my four years here. I’ve noticed the campus’s physical changes in the forms of new buildings and renovations that will further the University’s tremendous research and teaching capacities; the spirit of exploration Princeton fosters through funding for the performing arts, guest lectures, and public forums; and the support that we receive to reach our potentials without having to worry about haggling over utility bills or finding medical aid. I’ve also noticed that the University faces challenges in meeting the needs of a diverse community, which it has acknowledged and continuously seeks to address.
Having been here for four years, I find it easy to believe that I’ve noticed it all. But just the other day, I was walking to class when I saw the gargoyles on the rooftop of McCosh Hall. I’d never seen those gorgeous carved faces before. So, I began to wonder what other features I had missed. At 1879 Arch, I found another set of gargoyles. At Wu Hall, I saw a nonstructural column seemingly floating in air, suspended from the overhanging roof. On top of Scully Hall, I picked out a row of triangular sunroof windows pointing up to the sky.
I perceived these features for the first time, despite having walked by them countless times with my eyes glued to a digital screen or the path immediately in front of me. This isn’t an essay decrying our dependence on technology or constructing a stretched motif about considering alternate career paths. But it is an appeal to be a noticer.
What I love most about Princeton is that it never fails to provide something new to notice, whether it’s a new stage production, an Ivy League championship, a groundbreaking research discovery, or simply a hidden gargoyle. For four years, the members of this community have inspired me, held me in awe, and helped me to better understand myself as a person. What I will miss most is the community that the faculty, staff, and administrators work so hard to establish.
But noticing is not always as easy as picking your head up. In my time as an undergraduate, I’ve spoken to a University administrator precisely once. It was last week — a meeting I attended as a member of a group of students concerned about sustainability on campus. In this meeting, I realized that what I had perceived as an almost antagonistic attitude towards sustainability was a product of the inherent constraints a university of this size (and acreage) faces, in this instance with regards to moving the Office of Sustainability to a more central location.
I walked out of that meeting, an open exchange between an administrator and seven undergraduates, with a renewed confidence in the University’s commitment to sustainability and a new perspective on its welcoming attitude toward student input. It was an exercise in empathy building, as I began to understand the conflicting interests that sometimes obscure the University’s good intentions. I wondered how many points of tension between the students and administration could be mitigated by a strengthened forum between those two groups. I believe transparency and dialogue are the keys to combating this challenge.
In the sustainability realm, the area I know most intimately, I’ve often heard students complain about temperatures in dorms, Princeton-branded plastic water bottles in the U-Store, and the lack of clear messaging surrounding recycling. It would be easy, based on those data points, to dismiss Princeton as a university blind to the urgency of climate change. But that would completely ignore the multibillion-dollar investments Princeton has made to reduce its carbon footprint, including replacing all lights with LEDs, installing steam traps in dormitories (which save an annual 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year), and using motion-sensitive fume hoods to reduce energy-intensive air circulation in chemistry labs.
Before you criticize the University, as I had been ready to do, I encourage you to take the time to notice what the University is already attempting, but may not be communicating effectively. And if it is not attempting, then by all means speak up. That’s the type of input administrators seek.
It’s essential to realize that Princeton plans in 10- and 30-year intervals, numbers that dwarf our short time as undergraduates. Some issues may be impossible to foresee 10 and 30 years in advance, when the plans are decided. The University has many flaws, but it does not suffer from lack of positive intentionality. And the sooner we as an undergraduate population appreciate that, the sooner we can begin to form a more positive relationship with the administration.
Whether it be looking for a hidden gargoyle or $10-million energy efficiency upgrade, be a noticer. Keep your eyes open and look around, because you never know what you will find.
Graham Turk is a senior in computer science from Old Westbury, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.