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Princeton breeds dependence

Compared to the job search my classmates and I face, the sophomore stress over where to eat next year may seem a bit trivial. However, with the focus this campus puts on eating options, you could think students were choosing majors or jobs instead of menus. Eating clubs are such a central part of life at the University that the everyday words repurposed to describe the clubs — Bicker, hosing, discussions — all seem to have gained undeserved capital and significance in day-to-day life in the Bubble.

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Eating clubs, however, are not the only option. I still remember one hot summer day four years ago, when an Orange Key tour guide reassured my tour group we would have choices beyond the clubs. Nearly a third of upperclassmen are not in a club, he explained. Eating in the residential colleges, co-ops or being independent were also options. What’s more, my guide added, financial aid is there for you either way, giving every upperclassman on aid a lump sum regardless of his or her eating choice. Satisfied, I applied and eventually matriculated.

And here I am, four years later, having only once set foot in a Bicker club. Today, I have close friends spread across many clubs, though I myself have been a member of none. The process was hardly smooth — for students who, for whatever reason, do not wish to join an eating club, the social climate, campus landscape and University policy conspire to alienate and torment us.

Drawing for a coveted quad in Spelman Halls during sophomore spring, my roommates and I knew our chances were slim. Even though we were all independent, the point system for Spelman draw gave many senior draw groups with eating club members a higher priority than us. Were it not for the benevolence of four independent seniors who allowed us to join their group, we would likely not have found a room in Spelman. For at least one of my roommates, such a failure would have been the final straw forcing him to give up independence.

However, even once in Spelman, our troubles continued. My roommates and I were joined for meals by other independents, who were driven from their overcrowded and under-maintained dorm kitchens in Scully Hall and the slums. (Admittedly, our kitchen was not much cleaner, but at least it was our own private mess.) But neither my roommates, our guests nor myself owned a car. Shopping became a constant ordeal of coordinating with friends with cars or placing ourselves at the whim of food delivery services for which “no specific time can be requested.”

The residential college system was conceived not just as an alternative to the clubs, but as a means of combatting a fragmented campus social scene. Perhaps this is occasionally true, but too often, it only further fragments our social lives. I have seen far too many friends who wished to stay in the residential college system for financial or other reasons feel socially obligated to join eating clubs, under threat of drifting slowly away from friends and other University social orbits. As an independent student last year, I felt the same pull.

This effect builds its own vicious cycle. One night last week, three separate sophomores told me, unprompted, that they would rather not join a club, but saw no viable alternatives from a social or time management standpoint. After joining clubs, all too many have complained that the atmosphere is superficial, cliquey and unsuitable to the community in which they wish to live.

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Co-ops, like my own 2 Dickinson St. Co-op, help alleviate the social and time management issues, but are chronically oversubscribed. Worse, for much of the campus community, they are barely visible. Ask any conscientious freshmen, and they can likely name all the eating clubs. In comparison, I have known some seniors to be completely unaware of the location, workings or even concept of the co-ops.

That said, the Undergraduate Student Government has made great strides in increasing the visibility of co-ops and other alternative options this year. The recently-updated Independent Student Guide provides wonderful support for students outside the eating club system. However, the guide’s perspectives page still provides some bleak anecdotes about housing and timing difficulties. We have miles to go before we sleep.

Much would be gained by establishing another co-op, as the Editorial Board recently advocated. Preferably, this would be another house like 2-D, which provides for a larger and more cohesive community. While obtaining or building such a space might be expensive, the demand justifies this and more. Based on 2-D’s current waitlist (to say nothing of the other co-ops), four entirely new co-ops could be filled instantly.

However, simply building or designating more co-ops isn’t enough. Some students are better served by living in apartment-style housing. Reforming Spelman draw to give more weight to independent students is one solution, but risks further social fragmentation by splitting up independent and non-independent draw groups. A better solution would be more apartment-style housing, including timesaving 20th-century technology such as microwaves and dishwashers (standard outside the Bubble) and common social spaces to build community.

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Can we build all this extra housing? Yes. Plans to build a seventh residential college have been tossed around since the beginning of the tenure of University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, and just this week Eisgruber discussed plans for expanding the student body with the Princeton council. With this talk of possible expansion and increased scrutiny of residential communities following demands for affinity housing, we should not simply build more of the same. Instead, we should strive for a combination of affinity housing, independent-friendly housing and cooperatives too.

Until that happy day, there are immediate measures that can be undertaken. Stocking some cheap staples — canned or frozen produce, rice, flour, sugar, tofu and frozen meat — at the U-Store would allow independent students to prepare inexpensive, healthy and quick meals. Our current options are trekking off to far-off groceries in borrowed cars or inconvenient buses, or frequenting expensive specialty Nassau Street stores. Additionally, allowing independent upperclassmen to park in Lot 20 rather than the Graduate College lot would increase flexibility and convenience for students who regularly use such parking.

To prevent these new options from creating further fragmentation, eating clubs should allow meal exchanges with co-ops, even if not on a one-to-one basis as Terrace Club does with 2-D. Eating clubs are not, as other columns may have implied, an unmitigated evil. But neither should students be forced into them. I hope this community can respond to the needs of all of its members, so that all can find their place in the tapestry of a campus, which is, after all, our home.

Bennett McIntosh is achemistry major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at bam2@princeton.edu.