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A comparison of mushroom, student population ecology

From a wound in a tree on Prospect Avenue, to the compost heap in her backyard at 2 Dickinson Street, Ginger Walker '96 visited every nook and cranny on campus where she imagined a mushroom might grow. In the months leading up to her senior thesis, she filled notebooks with details on mushrooms such as their appearance, environment, how many were growing together and in what formation.

Few Princeton students could get as excited about fungi and ecological niches as Walker did. The only time I can remember noticing a mushroom on campus was one morning as I walked across Poe Field and a white, grapefruit-sized puffball presented itself to me. Unable to resist, I kicked it.


Last week, I went to Mudd Library seeking information about an unnoticed natural campus phenomenon to write about in this column. I found what I was looking for in Ginger Walker's thesis, "Introduction to the Mushrooms of the Princeton University Campus."

Thumbing through, one statement about the Princeton mushroom population immediately stood out to me, a statement that seemed to be a remarkable reflection on the Princeton human population.

For mushrooms on campus, the campus itself is not a continuous community.

At least 26 different species were identified by Walker, which is quite a diverse array of mushrooms for such a small area. Mushrooms growing in different places on campus look much different: white, dry and smooth in one grassy spot; inconspicuous, dull and neatly hairy in another. But, despite their diversity, different types are rarely seen right next to each other; Princeton mushrooms segregate much like Princeton students.

The student body diversity issue at Princeton usually focuses upon the role of admissions and financial aid policy in ensuring a diverse student body. Questions are raised about the pros and cons of affirmative action and the value of diversity in education. These are important ethical considerations for an institution like Princeton.

But I think that an equally important consideration is how the University handles the student diversity that already exists on campus. Most Princetonians have noticed that outside of the classroom, interaction between people of different races, ethnic and geographic backgrounds, or socioeconomic groupings is relatively infrequent. Naturally, people with similar interests and backgrounds, even appearances, will gravitate toward each other. Similar people have a grater chance of understanding each other based on the common ground they share.


In my own experience, I have found that these divisions have gotten accentuated with each semester I have spent at Princeton, especially since the spring of sophomore year when the question of eating clubs arose. This deserves a second look.

The first division occurs between people who can and people who cannot afford to join an eating club, followed by a division between those who bicker and those who sign in, followed by finer and finer athletic, academic, personality and fashion divisions, until the eating club stereotypes are so well-defined that they can easily be portrayed by a cartoonist.

Again, human nature predicts that many of these divisions are bound to occur as Princeton students go about their daily lives, making decisions about about what academic subjects to study, which activities to become involved in, etc. And it is not clear whether these divisions ar even problematic.

But should the eating club, which provides the underlying structure for social life at Princeton, further accentuate the divisions that are already made in other aspects of students' lives? It seems that the eating club system squashes any hope that the benefits of student diversity might make their way out of the classrooms into the social life on campus.

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If Ginger Walker stepped inside each building on the 'Street' and took notes on the characteristics of the members she found there, compiled the data and wrote up a thesis, she would easily come to a conclusion about Princeton student population ecology – that the campus itself is not a continuous community.