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Rethinking diversity: part I

When I ask you to think about diversity, a glowing picture of all the races of the world hand in hand singing Kumbaya in ethnic garb might pop into your head. I used to think the same before this past summer. I spent six weeks climbing ridges and jumping fences in Geological Field Camp, and the friends that I made on that trip have irrevocably altered the way I think about diversity.

As a 20-year-old, I was as green as they come. The first shock I received came from the ages of the students in the camp. The average student age was around 24, with at least three students over 30. Coming from Princeton, a place where it’s relatively safe to expect that 90 percent of the people you meet are between the ages of 18 and 24, this astounded me. I had thought that undergraduate education was something for, well, college “kids.”


The second shock was the families. My classmates would talk to their wives and kids before going to bed at night, asking them how their days were and how they were holding up with daddy gone. My own phone felt unusually silent, driving me to realize that I really didn’t have a whole lot of responsibilities in my life, and certainly didn’t have people who were reliant on me. When I’m at school I sometimes feel like there is a certain gravity to my actions, as though what I do from day to day has serious consequences. I don’t realize how easy I have it. Although many Princeton students are concerned about the practicality of their degrees and the development of post-collegiate skills, it’s mostly a selfish concern. We don’t have mouths to feed or mortgages to pay.

Truthfully, our education at Princeton by its nature separates us from the majority of college students in America. Many of us will have the opportunity to move to very small and rarified circles after graduation, running the risk of never quite coming back down to earth and interacting with people whose life paths are drastically different from our own. But these interactions are critical to the process of understanding ourselves in relation to society, a core component of diversity.

Probably the most interesting surprise that confronted me was the motivations of the students in my class. At Princeton, we are blessed with a rather foofy curriculum. After we pay our tuition, we’re basically able to take whatever classes or major in whatever strikes our fancy. But for many of the students from Houston, a college degree meant a way out. It meant not having to work as a bartender or a data logger and not having to rely on their parents for their roof and their meals.

Most of them were returning to education after having jobs and families. Many of us, however, come to Princeton directly or almost directly from high school, young, free and with partial or complete parental support — whichever country or city we come from. We tend to be from stable, hardworking families who value education, even though our races, nations and creeds might be different. If the goal of diversity is to connect people with walks of life which they’ve never seen before, then my six-week stint with a “non-diverse” group of Texans in Montana did a better job than my two years at the melting pot that is Princeton.

Princetonians should collaborate and associate with individuals outside of the privileged circles that we all have the opportunity to remain insulated in. Everyone should try to spend some time working or interacting with someone from a different walk of life. Whether that means working outside of the pre-professional summer programs offered by Princeton or devoting yourself to a community service program, one needs non-Ivy League exposure from time to time. The impact that this could have on your perspective is incalculable and essential to understanding yourself in relation to the world in which you live.

Princeton is diverse in many different ways, but we all have similar prospects, motivations and opportunities now that we’re here. We can have all of the races, religions and socioeconomic groups that we want, but until we have the chance to interact with people on completely different life trajectories than our own, we really won’t have seen half of what is out there.


People, both students and administrators, must really ponder what they mean when they talk about diversity and why they consider it such a good thing. You can’t just pile in groups of people from different backgrounds and call your community diverse, a concept which I hope to explore in next week’s column. You need to find people with different opportunities, different motivations and different life paths to really accomplish what can be accomplished by diversity: a radical change in perspective.

Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at

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