I remember when I was accepted to Princeton. It was a Friday, the infamous Ivy Day, to be exact, when all Ivy League schools send out their decisions, leaving thousands of high school seniors feeling extremely ecstatic or extremely inadequate. After other college rejections, I opened each Ivy League letter with low expectations.
Yale: rejected. Columbia: rejected. Cornell: rejected. Princeton: congratulations!
In that moment, the world stood still. My hands were shaking, and I could feel the tears welling in the back of my eyes. I didn’t really know what had just happened, but from what I knew about the reputation of “Ivy League” schools, I knew it was something good, or so I thought.
Princeton is a wonderful institution, filled with great opportunity and an even greater support system among the faculty and staff. There is no denying the fact that simply attending this school has the potential to open many doors that you might not even have thought existed in the past. However, the “small fish in a big pond” phenomenon is a glaring and inevitable downside to an Ivy League education. This, along with the tendency towards elitism in terms of levels of education, are aspects of the Ivy League that can have extremely harmful effects on the mental health and academic potential of students.
The “small fish in a big pond” phenomenon happens when students, incredibly smart and talented scholars, get accepted into these daunting institutions and begin comparing themselves to their equally smart and talented peers. They feel inadequate and discouraged, even though there really isn’t anything wrong with them. The expectations we face as students is enough to make anyone feel like they’re not good enough. Alumni have left the Orange Bubble and have gone to become leaders, not only in their field, but leaders in the world. As a new student, or even as an upperclassman, looking at such a seemingly never ending list of achievements is more than terrifying.
With this in mind, it is more than encouraging to see steps being taken to change this insidious culture altogether. There are a handful of programs like the Princeton Perspective Project and The Other Side of Me Campaign that recognize impostor syndrome and feeling like one doesn’t belong at such a demanding and intimidating school. If you have ever felt this way, both of these initiatives tell stories of the people around you that you might have never known and increase the sense of community on campus. Personally, I didn’t know these programs existed until recently, which is why an increase in attention towards these programs and those like them is critical for an undergraduate’s first few months at Princeton.
In terms of educational elitism, I found myself wrapped up learning about a culture obsessed with the concepts of exclusivity and hierarchy. Too many times, people have looked to other colleges outside of these elite private institutions and have discredited their levels of education. People see state schools and community colleges as inferior, when in reality, any form of higher education opportunity is what you make of it.
In choosing to come to Princeton, both you and I have chosen to challenge ourselves. We have all chosen to become a part of a culture that is notorious for all the good and all the bad of the Ivy League. Instead of accepting the bad and being sucked into all the stereotypes of the Ivy League, breaking away and supporting our peers can help us all succeed in the end.
Lourdes Santiago is a first-year from Gilbert, Ariz. She can be reached at email@example.com.