A web application called “Alcohol for Guest Swipes” was a short-lived idea I had for a design project in COS 333: Advanced Programming Techniques. More useful than Tigerbook, more certain to get you in the administration’s crosshairs than “Passes for Late Meal” — what more could you want? As an independent, the thought of where my next meal is coming from is never too far from my mind, and I’ve come to appreciate creative solutions to the problem. Despite the apprehensions I had upon first going independent, I’ve found that the independent life is not particularly onerous, and that its positive aspects far outweigh the negatives.
Initially, my motivations for going independent were a mixture of ideological and financial. Despite the many positive sides of eating clubs, I felt uncomfortable perpetuating what I saw as an exclusive and divisive social system, funding excessive drinking, and participating in parties that I didn’t find wholesome. On the financial side, the average eating club costs around $10,000 a year for membership and dues, while the typical co-op costs between a tenth to a fifth of that. Spurred by frugality (I’m the kind of person who cuts index cards in half to get more life out of them), I eventually came to see that the hunt for free food, if done right, need not detract from my social and intellectual life. One immediate difference I noticed was the joy of cooking with friends, with its greater privacy and opportunity for serious conversation. Preparing and consuming food took on a slow-paced and intimate atmosphere compared to the hubbub of dining halls or clubs at mealtime.
Realistically, cooking every day is not a feasible option. As a result, being independent has encouraged me to attend lunch and dinner seminars on topics as diverse as the linguistics of “Game of Thrones,” technology policy, Homer’s “The Iliad,” Soviet dissident literature, William Shakespeare, philosophy of language, U.S. constitutional law, the politics of gender identity, and nuclear proliferation. Not only have I been able to mostly subsist off of the largesse of Princeton’s numerous learning initiatives and its seemingly endless catering tabs, but I have also been able to learn a thing or two about topics completely unrelated to my concentration and coursework. If I had a meal plan or a club membership, I may never have overcome the inertia and convenience of eating all my meals in the same place with the same friends. Yet over the years, I’ve become more comfortable breaking bread with graduate students, visiting fellows, and undergraduates from diverse disciplines.
I shouldn’t downplay the ways in which being independent has also been a humbling experience. Rather than having anything of social worth to offer to underclassmen, I’ve been the one asking them — everyone from people I meet in classes or extracurriculars to my Outdoor Action frosh to my RCA friend — for dining hall guest swipes and relying on their generosity. During events like Reunions, Lawnparties, or formals, I’ve had no obvious place to be to enjoy the action. But rather than consider this a negative aspect of the independent life, I have come to view these social hurdles as having had a positive impact on my character. I’ve learned not to take too much for granted and to be grateful when I have opportunities like eating a meal at Prospect House, being invited to a professor’s home for dinner, or even being treated to late meal by an underclass student. I’ve learned to be at peace with some luxuries always being out of reach and to see the joy in simple and inexpensive pursuits.
Not everyone’s independent experience is the same. Some independents do struggle with nutrition. Some independents do find it more rare to enjoy a sit-down meal in good company than to subsist off of scavenged pizzas and Panera. There have been days when I’ve eaten less in quantity or less healthily than I would have liked. I don’t fault anyone for joining a club, which for many becomes an important locus of support and community. Yet too many people view independent life as bizarre or unrealistic. With a small critical mass of friends to join you, a willingness to meet new people, and the initiative to organize and build up your own community, the independent life is both feasible and rewarding.
Common misconceptions paint the social life of the independent student as lonely or lacking community. Yet on a quiet night, as I wander amongst the abstract labyrinth of Spelman Halls, I look up and see the various light-filled rooms where I’ve enjoyed many an evening get-together or home-cooked meal with dear friends; I think that although the center of gravity of my social life may be somewhat far-removed from the elegant facades of Prospect Avenue, I nonetheless feel rooted in a community of support and common interests. On weekend nights, thoughts of passes and lists are nowhere on my mind, though I may stay up till the wee hours deep in conversation over a bottle of wine. The social events I attend tend to be smaller and more subdued, but I’ve had the good fortune to meet many new people and enjoy the type of conversation that I’ve rarely had at pregames or in eating club basements.
“Alcohol for Guest Swipes” may never have materialized, but I seem to have found ways to feed myself without violating the law. All in all, being independent has been a surprisingly important part of my Princeton experience; it has colored the way I look at friendship, festivity, and frugality. Eating clubs will probably continue to be the dominant social and culinary apparatus at Princeton for the immediate future, with 77 percent of sophomores participating in bicker or sign-in. But for those who didn’t join a club or those who find that the clubs are not all that they are hyped up to be — don’t fret. It’s okay to forge your own path; it’s okay to be independent.
Thomas Hikaru Clark is a senior in the computer science department. He can be reached at email@example.com.