This past week, from Monday at noon to Wednesday at noon, I spent what felt like every waking moment texting, emailing, and reminding people in person to vote in the USG elections for Referendum Question No. 1, which I sponsored on behalf of the Princeton Student Climate Initiative. The week before voting opened, my group and I spent hours tabling in Frist Campus Center, posting flyers on lampposts, and folding table tents.
Throughout the campaign, several of my upperclassmen friends consistently warned that it would be difficult to get one-third of the student body (the minimum required threshold) to vote, citing past referenda which had failed due to too few votes. In discussing this challenge with them, I repeatedly heard the word “apathy” mentioned in association with Princeton students. Friends complained that “Princeton students are so apathetic” or that “it’s so tough to get anyone here to do anything.” As I urged people to submit their ballots, I too wondered why it was so difficult to get people to vote. Did they even care about the cause?
While some students at Princeton may indeed not care about the climate referendum, it’s incorrect to call these individuals apathetic, as it implies that they are indifferent toward everything on campus. In reflecting on my first year here, however, I genuinely believe that every student here has to care about something, making them not apathetic by definition. Whether that be prison reform for members of SPEAR, dancing and theater for members of performing arts groups, or sports for varsity athletes, everyone here is doing something meaningful outside of their schoolwork (as many of us did in high school, too). Academics can also be a source of motivation, as can friendships and family. Thus, when we label someone as apathetic, we are disregarding the diverse set of interests unique to each person, implying that their apathy toward our particular area of interest extends to all issues on campus.
Let’s be careful not to generalize and stereotype, however. Just because someone strongly identifies with a particular student group or interest does not mean that they are completely apathetic to every other cause. Musicians can still be passionate about politics, athletes about climate change, and so forth. The limiting factor in this equation is simply time. In the stressful academic environment that is Princeton, it’s impossible to get actively involved in virtually everything, or even more than a couple of things.
Student groups on campus are often lamenting the lack of interest in their group or the apathy of Princeton students toward their area of focus. But calling students apathetic is insulting, incorrect, and even selfish. Constantly promoting one’s own interests denigrates the interests of others on campus.
Rather than continually recruiting for one’s groups, thus, I argue that student groups should start thinking about meeting other groups where their diverse interests lie and searching for common discussion points and intersectionalities.
Many groups already do this by co-hosting events; with regards to sustainability and climate action, the possibilities for interjecting these into campus dialogue are endless. There could be improv comedy nights and dance performances themed around nature, dialogues about environmental justice and equity at the Carl A. Fields Center, or outdoor prayer sessions with different religious groups on campus.
It’s equally critical, however, for us to sit in on other groups’ discussions and take the time to listen to their diverse perspectives, leaving our own agendas behind. Morgan Lucey recently wrote an insightful opinion piece on how it’s vital to attend events that highlight different viewpoints from our own. On an overprogrammed campus like Princeton, with 10 different events taking place every afternoon and evening, instead of scheduling another gathering for your group, perhaps try attending other meetings and observing the passions of other students put into practice.
Despite all of the warnings that students wouldn’t vote, our climate referendum ended up passing with 42 percent of the campus voting and 95 percent voting in its favor. While 42 percent is not the greatest turnout, this still encourages me and makes me think that students here care, even if they don’t have the time to actively show it. Calling our peers apathetic assumes that everyone should dedicate all their energy to all of the problems facing this planet, an impossibility. If more of us learn to accept this reality and instead meet people where their interests lie, I think this campus can ultimately become a more cohesive, inclusive, and thoughtful space.
Claire Wayner is a first-year from Baltimore, MD. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.