Many of us came to Princeton shackled with golden handcuffs, and we haven’t shed them yet.
Part of it is the reality of living four years at a university that bleeds money and — with constant renovations and additions — never has a hair out of place. Part of it is the University silently curbing us towards rich job prospects — like through Career Services — because it milks us for our money.
Part of it is our parents, who want us to pursue careers worth the cost of our tuition. Part of it is our parents, who accustomed us to opulent lifestyles even before we came to Princeton. Part of it is our parents, who want to see us financially secure and living up to our ‘Princeton’ potential.
Part of it is ourselves. “I feel like if I didn’t do something significant with my physics degree, I’d be misusing not just the degree but the Princeton label I’ve been given,” Josh Latham ’20 confided. The ‘Princeton label’ is a VIP ticket to the ‘rarest,’ most prestigious jobs, and we feel we must live up to it. We feel “we should stick to the ‘Princeton plan,’” Jay Sourbeer ’18 says.
Last Wednesday, I walked out of a Sustainable Princeton meeting perturbed. I had drastically overestimated the amount of impact I could have on food insecurity in Princeton township. Intricate systems were already in place to make sure at any time of the day, one could find food to feed his/her family. Restaurants, groceries and neighborhood friendlies were already all roped in to the cause. Yet, a single need had rung out again and again:
It would really be nice if we just had a refrigerated truck.
A refrigerated truck would make our lives so much easier.
Transportation of food items from pantry to pantry is difficult. We have to make sure the food doesn’t spoil before it gets to the needy.
“A refrigerated truck?” I thought. “You don’t need the next cutting-edge future of food production, or a large-scale social revolution to change the way people view nutrition? You need a refrigerated truck?”
It was so simple. We could raise the money in an afternoon.
But a part of me rebelled. Was I going to raise money for a refrigerated truck? It was an un-marketable idea. It was ordinary, bland, inglorious. Rally behind the latest vertical farming technique? Yes, I could see dozens of students vying to get in on the trade secrets. Rally behind a refrigerated truck? Did I want my name to go down as the “girl who raised enough money to buy a truck for Princeton”?
To be honest, I did not. I wanted to be rarefied. I wanted a problem where I could dream up an “out of box” solution. If I continued down this course, I’d be setting a precedent for an underwhelming, money-bereft career.
I believed that I was above this job. I want to serve others, but I had always assumed I would be able to do it in an entrepreneurial, prestigious, and profitable way. Expecting the dart of life to land at the intersection of profit, prestige, and meaningful work, however, is setting oneself up for serious disappointment.
Some of us will seek meaningfulness in high-paying jobs that realistically cannot fill that void. David Keddie ’04, an alum who now works in the nonprofit sector, shared this example: “Everyone [in the corporate law firm that my wife worked at] said they ‘just wanted to quit the job’ [because corporate law is designed to burn people out.] The next day, that same coworker that said that [he wanted to quit the job] showed up with a Mercedes,” says Keddie.
Others of us will chase after the ‘cool story,’ the ‘elevator talk’ that goes on at reunions. “‘I dug wells in Ethiopia’ sounds cool to people, even if when other people did it, it failed, and then you’ve done it and it’s actually failed again and you’re depressed about it — this is a true account, by the way,” Keddie says, chuckling. If we blindly pursue entrepreneurialism, we take on projects that are neither effectual nor fulfilling.
Service is not smooth-going. Much of the most impactful and meaningful service — like teaching at a public high school or working against tangles of bureaucracy to slowly effect change in the prison system — is slow, takes persistence, and is definitely not about the cool stories. More often than not, service will feel like ‘beating one’s head against the wall.’ Meaningful service will be a change from the efficiency and luxury of Princeton University.
I am disappointed that the reason I turned away the opportunity to raise money for a refrigerated truck in Princeton was because I thought myself to be above concrete change. I have come to realize that if we are to be truly “in the service of humanity,” we need to get our head out of the clouds of “smart solutions” and engage with the reality of change.
“A lot of it is swallowing your pride and walking away from everyone saying ‘wow’ when we tell them what we do,” Keddie says, speaking from personal experience. “Sometimes you have to say: I’m going to do as I do.”
Allison Huang is a first-year from Princeton, NJ. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.