At this point last year, I had reopened the infamous Common App portal. Until the end of fall break, I was convinced I’d be transferring.
I think everyone goes through a phase — or many phases — of thinking Princeton is their personal hell. That may be okay for a little while. But to enter a new environment and decide within two months that the place sucks and will forever suck is not productive.
In a recent “Nassau Weekly” article, Zartosht Ahlers ’19 tries to dispel the impression that everyone thinks Princeton is a magical, happy place where no one has problems and only smiles. While he raised points about misleading preconceptions about the Ivy League and warned that the excitement of frosh week wears off (spoiler: it does), he missed a crucial detail: Princeton students criticize the University and complain all the time. In fact, that’s what diffuses the stress and makes it more bearable.
In his article, Ahlers chides Princeton’s pompous school spirit, claiming the “Orange-Bubble-Kool-Aid” numbs students’ awareness of the hardships here. Specifically, he mentions “Duck Fartmouth” stickers on laptops. I've never seen one of these. Instead, I have seen stickers that poke fun at the ridiculous workload and exclusive social scene, like “Let’s get Firestoned” or “can I get a pass lol.” People express dissatisfaction with key components of the culture of Princeton — and thank goodness they do.
The only person I know who can sing all of Old Nassau, our school anthem, is a Nassoon. No one regards the Pre-Rade as their happiest day on campus. It gets lost in the disorienting haze that frosh week brings for everyone. For some, walking in a line around Nassau Hall with 1,200 strangers made them aware of just how lonely they were. There is no right way to do Princeton, but if your first few days here were your best, then you’re definitely doing it wrong.
Ahlers’s argument is grounded in the idea that Princeton students subscribe to the “Duck Syndrome” that elite schools are known for. What campus Ahlers is walking around? I don’t see students leaving McGraw or the Writing Center with smiles on their faces, championing the greatness of the place.
But alumni do. As a legacy student, I grew up hearing about Princeton glorification-soaked stories. I felt ashamed when my first few months weren’t living up to those legends I heard every Thanksgiving. Students who haven’t had a family member attend a university like this — or a university at all —aren’t sure there will be anything to glorify or gain from the endless work and stress.
To the question, “How are you liking school so far?” I would respond: “Princeton is like a Samsung. It’s not user friendly.” It was harder to admit to people outside of Princeton that I wasn’t loving it than to share my discomfort with people here; I didn’t want to be that struggling freshman in the eyes of my friends’ parents back home.
Meanwhile, here I saw and heard my feelings echoed around this campus — sometimes to a disheartening degree. This time last year I was going to breakfast when the girl in front of me said hello to one of the dining staff and simultaneously combusted into tears. The woman working behind the desk got up and wrapped her arms around the student’s heaving shoulders.
I needed that hug just as much as she did. Most of my friends at the time — some still now — needed one too. When kids from my high school reach out saying that they are applying here, I don’t lie: “Come and visit. You have to see it.”
The great moments you feel at Princeton are amplified, as are the slumps. A bad day is multiplied by the fact that the people you are living and eating with probably had a bad day too, for the same reasons. Yes, that is a critique of the school. It is possible to be simultaneously critical and content. Making critiques can’t stand in one’s way of finding pockets of joy that eventually build a satisfying experience.
I agree with Ahlers’s statement that those pockets of joy look different for each student. Maybe a cappella-world will become your safe haven; perhaps Whig-Clio is how you decompress. Giving yourself something to look forward to, and more people to greet, are gifts to yourself.
Accepting that your path through Princeton probably won’t look anything like the one you took to get here is hard but important. Most of us come here because we are self-assured, high-achieving, and self-motivated. Then you come here, and those identifiers of you no longer stand out because the majority of students share them. It’s terrible to realize you weren’t the final draft of yourself that you claimed to be.
A lot of the things I hated about Princeton had more to do with me than the school. The good news is that you are always changing. While Ahlers is correct that being critical and even disliking Princeton aren’t indicators that your life is headed down a bad path, his article encourages complacency. Even though happiness isn’t easy here, I hope you still pursue it.
Rachel Kennedy is a sophomore from Dedham, Mass. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.