Every month or so during the past couple years of high school, my dad would take my sister and me on a 20-minute drive from our home in Wellesley, Mass., to the Harvard bookstore in Cambridge. As soon as he unleashed us in the vast expanse of the store, we would scour the shelves to look for the perfect book to hold us over until the next trip. I remember the thrill of discovering all the possible books I could read, the painful process of deciding which book to get — “All the Light We Cannot See,” “Evicted,” or “Stamped from the Beginning”? — and the joy I felt walking out of the store with a new challenge to tackle.
Somewhere along my journey at Princeton, between the whirlwind of Orientation, the rush of my first classes, and the stress of the daily grind, I forgot about this feeling — this feeling of self-discovery, of learning on my own. As college students, we should always be seeking to learn about the world we live in. Reading is one of the best avenues for this endeavor because of its ability not only to educate, but also to inspire.
What sparked this realization was a recent assignment for my SOC 101: Introduction to Sociology class, in which I had to choose an outside book about a sociological topic and write a book review. I chose “Coming of Age in the Other America,” which examined the lives of young adults in low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore, seeking to discover what factors and policies prevented them from achieving upward mobility. As I read, I realized I was learning so much more about the topic that interested me — racial inequality in the United States — than I ever could have by just reading the textbook or going to lecture.
Reading that book reminded me that, throughout my life, it hasn’t been the in-class schoolwork driving my passion for academic studies, but rather the independent work I have done for my classes, or the totally unrelated outside reading. I’m sure all of us have a story about that one book we read on our own that sparked a passion for something that we carry with us to this day.
For me, that book was James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” which I read my sophomore year of high school for an independent English project. Baldwin’s essays sparked my passion for the study of racial issues in the United States, a passion that drives my path of study here at Princeton.
If I had not read this book, where would I be? You see, reading is about self-educating, about discovering your passions. And it is these passions that shape our Princeton experience, both inside and outside the classroom.
Moreover, by solely relying on Princeton classes to make up our educational experience, we lose so much potential growth and learning throughout our time here. Princeton can’t teach you everything, nor should it. The onus falls upon us as students to educate ourselves on our own time, to follow the passions we’ve discovered over the years, and to seek to learn more about the world we live in as we prepare to go out and try to change it.
We didn’t get into Princeton solely because we excelled in the classroom, but also because we showed a love of learning outside of it. This passion for learning and self-discovery shouldn’t stop after high school. Getting into Princeton doesn’t mean we should stop seeking moments to learn on our own.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t take the time to totally escape work, to mindlessly scroll through our Facebook feeds and indulge in funny videos on YouTube, but every once in a while we should strive to pick out a book and learn on our own.
So I am setting a goal for myself, and I challenge you to set a similar one. I hope to start a book over the break — it might be a work by James Baldwin, a fiction novel like “Anna Karenina,” or narrative non-fiction like “The Warmth of Other Suns” — and continue reading even as I get caught up in the swing of the next semester. Because college is about so much more than going to classes; it’s about continuing our journey of self-discovery while we still have the time to explore.
Shannon Chaffers is a first-year from Wellesley, Mass. She can be reached at email@example.com.