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This Side of Princeton: Cyclab

Princeton has a way of warping — maybe even morphing — my perspective of the world around me. Greek columns like those of the Parthenon work their way into my daily walk to class, accompanied by a peppering of famous statues and Nobel laureate professors. I’ll never forget my first foray into the magnificence of Princeton as an eager 14-year-old, overcome by the ridiculous perfection that seems to ooze out of every nook and cranny of each architectural marvel on campus. It was then that my idea of a pristine Princeton was truly solidified. Every space on campus was its own iteration of what perfection should look like—from the quarter-sawn oak paneling in East Pyne to the angular exactness of I. M. Pei’s venerated Spelman apartments.


It is through this lens that I amble through life here inside the Orange Bubble, always oscillating between the perfect and the pristine, often never finding a comfortable place for my imperfect self. The much-referenced ideal of “effortless perfection” seems to find a cozy dwelling in our ivory towers, both spatially and metaphorically, as we drift past our Olympic medalist neighbors and Google interning classmates, often wondering how they can exude such a quiet brilliance. It can be a challenge then, to find a place here that lifts that pressure off of our textbook-laden shoulders. Luckily for me, there is one such place on campus.

At first glance, the Cyclab could come off as an unorganized intersection between chaos and mayhem, where entropy seems to be increasing just a bit faster than normal. Situated between and below two residential colleges — Rocky and Mathey — the Cyclab benefits from a state of relative anonymity among many, yet also a cult following amongst some, allowing for a space that doesn’t compel you to be at your best. There, deep in the bowels of up-campus’ ancient architecture, lie tires and tubes, grease and gears, and a hodgepodge of tools that you could stare at for a thousand years and still not understand quite how they work. But, beneath the layers of dirt and grime, this space on campus is more like home to me than any archway or tower could ever be.

Some of my fondest memories of growing up in small-town Pennsylvania are days spent helping (read: watching) my dad fix up whichever car inevitably needed attention that day. I remember walking back and forth between the workbench and the car while trying not to forget if it was an Allen or a Phillips that he had asked for. Watching gears lurch back to life and listening to explanations about how alternators work was always a highlight of my weekends.

And now, at Cyclab, I get to relive that experience as I try to unstick someone’s gears or maybe even just help them pump up a tire. Walking into Cyclab, you don’t feel like you’re trapped in your Chemistry lab, where one mishandled chemical could lead to disaster; rather, you’re invited to twist and turn, to pull and push, until your bike is cruising off into the sunset in one piece. There, hidden between Rocky and Mathey, juxtaposed against the paragon of Princeton perfection, there is a space for mistakes. These mistakes, however small or large they might be, help me learn without the pressure of “effortless perfection” and that’s the best kind of space I could ever ask for here.