Two days ago I was rolling around the Subalpine chains of Eastern France in a white passenger van with five other Princeton students, a Frenchman and a Spaniard. We were studying the evolution of carbonate platforms during the Cretaceous, an experience which proved to me that spending an extended amount of time with your classmates and professors should be an essential part of any academic course at Princeton. There are several reasons for this, all of which ultimately end in a more memorable, personal and stimulating collegiate experience.
I’m a geosciences major. One of the central grounds for my decision to spend the next few years of my life studying earth, wind and fire was the fact that many of the courses allow, and even require, that you spend at least weekends — and sometimes entire weeks — scurrying around New Jersey and beyond. These many-hour endeavors, though often exhausting, always result in three things: an increased understanding of the subject at hand, a greater love for campus and the benefits afforded by it and, most importantly, personal insight and deepened relationships with your classmates and professors.
These day and overnight trips need not be limited to field science departments like EEB and GEO but can be modeled by all departments in Princeton. You don’t need to be a concentrator in the sciences, let alone a field science, to benefit from getting off the Princeton campus and going to a location related to your studies. Students studying English could travel to Massachusetts to visit the same pond that inspired Thoreau, while economics majors could spend a weekend bumming around a stock exchange. The possibilities for each department are endless.
The educational benefits of first-hand learning are evident. Undergraduates can contextualize their studies by actually experiencing situations in which their education comes into play and meeting people who are currently utilizing their education. Students see what they are doing in school not as some arbitrary series of hoops through which to be jumped, but rather as the construction of a reserve of knowledge upon which they will draw later in life. Furthermore, at a pedagogical level, hands-on learning actually helps you remember more than any lecture or reading. Assuming that the goal of education is to ensure that students learn and retain pertinent information, there’s no better way than through experience.
But academics aren’t the only reason to go on class excursions. Getting out of Princeton has merits of its own. Some of us spend several weeks or even a month or two at school without ever leaving campus. This creates a very isolated and often skewed perception of the world. The things we worry about at school, whether grades, friends or assignments, are sometimes unique to a collegiate setting and quite often pale in importance when compared to real issues faced outside of a university campus. Everywhere from New York City to Paris, people live lifestyles in stark contrast to what we face as college students. Getting out and seeing those differences yields a great perspective on our own lives as undergraduates.
But the central reason for going on departmental trips, and what prompted me to write this article, is the people. Because of the structure of many classes at Princeton, students often don’t have the opportunity to get to know or interact with their professors on a meaningful level. Sure, you can go to lecture, precept and office hours as much as you want, but you’re never going to get to know your professor and preceptors as well as if you spend a lot of time with them both in and out of an academic context. Our instructors are actually people too, with their own lives, perspectives and senses of humor. Getting to spend a few days not only learning from them but also living with them will actually create the student-teacher relationships that are often lacking in college.
Ultimately, though, the development of student relationships is what sets trips apart. Over the course of a mere week I went from knowing next to nothing about the other students in my class to being good friends with most of them. Typically, because our academic interactions only last one to three hours at a time, it’s difficult for us to make time to get to know our classmates. We usually have other things going on or other places to be and things to do. Being on a trip with your class ensures that you’ll at least have the opportunity to acquaint yourself with one another without distractions,. Rather than just seeing people’s academic sides, you expose yourself to their quirky, funny and often quite endearing personalities.
Departments need to get together and brainstorm ways to send their undergraduates away. It could just be what changes a familiar face to a lifelong friend.
Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.