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The “but-for” test of life

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out about what I would write here — how can one sum up their four years going through Princeton in the words allotted to a Daily Princetonian column? Looking back through our archives, there are any number of ways that retiring columnists have reflected on that process and thought towards the future. 

I had a conversation some time ago with a Wilson School professor and mentor, Stanley Katz, about applying the “but-for” test to life. It’s normally a test in tort law to determine causation — “but for the existence of X, would Y have occurred?” As Professor Katz explained it, though, it’s also a useful way to think about our lives. It’s grounded me during some difficult spots over the past few years. Here are just a few examples: 


But for sitting down in a Jones Hall classroom during Princeton Preview to attend one of the most bizarre lectures of my Princeton career (“The Chinese Sexual Revolution — with visual aids!”), would I have met one of my best friends here by bonding over the wackiness of the lecture after? You make friends in strange places, after all. 

But for taking Professor Beth Lew-Williams’ Asian American History class and subsequently getting more involved with AAPI issues on campus, would I have gained the understanding of my heritage and history that I really needed to appreciate where I came from and where I was going? I’m eternally grateful for the community and camaraderie provided through the Asian American Students Association, the Asian American Studies Committee, and the generational struggle for Asian American studies on campus and beyond. 

But for Professor Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor’s class on housing in America, what would I have really understood about my hometown of Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan? It was a reminder of how important it is to take classes outside of your comfort zone. 

But for joining and competing with the Model United Nations team, would I have learned the public speaking and communications skills that were so useful later on during the rallies I helped lead at Princeton? You never know what skills might come in handy later.

But for joining the ‘Prince,’ would I have found one of my favorite communities on campus and learned how difficult it is to actually put out a newspaper every single school night? I never could have even imagined that a little column about “Fresh Off the Boat” back when I first joined the ‘Prince’ would lead to a greater involvement in campus journalism, culminating in a frigid Canadian immigration reporting trip. You never know where life will take you. 

But for the love and support of my friends on campus, would I have made it through my studies here? An alumnus told me just before I started college that “Princeton is the best place in the world to be miserable with your friends,” and four years later, I couldn’t agree more. 


One last one — but for the care of my family, would Princeton have been a place for me to grow, learn, and develop? I’m eternally grateful for all of my family’s love over these past few years — especially for the examples set by my paternal grandparents, who passed away in 2015. I hope that I’ve made you proud.   

The list could go on. We’re only at Princeton for four years — it’s a short time in the grand scheme of things with an outsized impact on the way we live and form our worldviews. What I encourage everyone to do, then, is to just take some time to think about the critical junctures in and influences on our time here. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.  

Nicholas Wu is a senior in the Wilson School from Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. He can be reached at

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