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I tried over 1/3 of the Eating Clubs: here’s what I learned

<h6>Sierra Stern / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sierra Stern / The Daily Princetonian

The first time I bickered for an eating club, I had just returned from a fall semester off. I arrived on campus the first day of Spring Bicker, minutes before the event started. Dropped off at the Street, I approached the nearest building, hoping it was the right eating club.

I asked a girl in front of me if this was indeed “Cap.” She narrowed her eyes at me, but nodded tersely, and I smiled back, getting in line behind her. Before long, I was inside Cap & Gown Club for the first time.

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What I immediately realized when I entered the main lobby where officers, members, and bickerers were gathered was how few people I knew in Cap. At most, I recognized five or six faces, two to three of whom were close friends, out of the more than 250 members. It felt intimidating to bicker surrounded by so many new people I had never met before.

Bicker was essentially three days of 1.5 hours of fast-paced speed dating with club members. I spent around five minutes with each person, sometimes more, doing group activities or talking about myself. It’s like a game — the goal is to meet and talk with as many people as possible. The more people remember you and like you, the more likely you’ll get into the club.

After three days of bickering, a marathon of socializing (even for an extrovert like me), I realized three things about myself: I preferred the one-on-one conversations the most — they encouraged more intimate sharing and deeper connections, plus they were like an exercise in storytelling. I found it hard to stand out in group activities. I was never extreme in speech and much more of a team player when it came to games. I felt small compared to louder, taller people. I’m really bad at coming up with fun facts.

Group activities pressured me into making myself stand out, so that current members would remember who I was and vouch for me. It felt so unnatural, especially at that particular time in my life.

Sophomore year was not a time that I felt entirely confident in myself. Even if I was okay being around people and speaking with others, it was difficult for me to be myself in those situations. I think I was just beginning to question my beliefs and opinions. I was only beginning to understand who I was, after a year of therapy and time off from school.

How could I know if I was someone who “fit” in this eating club, if I didn’t even know myself, or what this club stood for?

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My uncertainty must have shown, for I was not accepted into Cap my sophomore spring. Or it might have been the fact that I didn’t know enough people there. Whatever the reason, my getting “hosed” from Cap catapulted me into a journey of trying out four different eating clubs, interspersed with various Co-ops: Terrace Club, Tower Club, 2D Co-op, Colonial Club, Brown Co-op, and, eventually, Cap again.

Here is a brief description of my time in each eating club. I dive into why I joined, my observations of each club, and what I learned about myself from my time there. Disclaimer: this is my personal experience, so others might disagree with my opinions or have very different experiences. Please do not treat my words as some type of judgement, but merely a place for reflection.

TERRACE: My first love

The main reason why I joined Terrace is because three of my closest friends that year joined. After befriending other members in Terrace, I learned that Terrace attracted many LGBTQ+ members. Stumbling into this community in Terrace, I was not prepared for the wild, colorful, and loving types of people I met there. But I was pleasantly surprised by it. Terrace provided me with a safe space for self discovery, and in particular, helped me explore my sexuality. While I do not identify as LGBTQ+, it made me less caught up in how others saw me. Interacting with people in a space of fluid relationships and identities was surprisingly refreshing, since so many of Princeton’s groups, and society in general, can feel somewhat conformist.

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Joining an eating club for the first time also caused me to question my values. Growing up, I wasn’t fond of drinking, smoking, or similar social activities. When offered a drink, I felt no judgement from people when I said no. But when I wasn’t able to join others in the same activities that involved alcohol, I had to consciously remind myself to not think too much about it, or I would feel a deep sense of missing out. I knew my friends in the club were not judging me for abiding to my values. Still, that experience was tough. To be the only odd one out in a club where everyone else does the same thing is hard. But it gave me a sense of confidence to trust myself. It boosted my ability to know and accept myself, and not change myself to fit whatever mold I was in.

The reason why I left Terrace was rather undramatic and unrelated to my moral qualms. After my sophomore spring, my best friends felt they wanted to move into a co-op. I had no bad mojo with Terrace. I simply had not spent enough time with the other returning members to feel as inclined to stay in the club. So I decided to try bickering again, because there were no spots available for me in the co-op my closest friends joined. I still craved the deep connections I had found in Terrace, so I went to bicker at the club where I knew the most people — Tower.

TOWER: My first disappointment

Bickering Tower in the fall felt like floating down a river, compared to drowning in Cap that first time. For one, the Tower Bicker sessions had many more one-on-ones. I also already knew a lot of people in Tower. During Bicker, I spent more time waiting in the lobby area for someone I hadn’t yet met to interview me, passing the time by chatting with the current members who were already close friends or acquaintances of mine.

When I found out I got into Tower, my reaction was nothing like I thought it’d be. Instead of feeling super accomplished or ecstatic to be in a Bicker club, I felt like it was expected, that I was almost undeserving of it since I only got in because I already had good relationships with many people in the club. Did I really “fit” their culture, or was I just another person who got in because of her “network?”

However, unlike Terrace, I never felt like a minority or majority in Tower. Tower felt balanced and diverse — I loved that simultaneous feeling of blending in and standing out, and the comfort that it gave me. Many people’s extroversion rubbed off on me, and I felt like I was becoming more social while I was there.

However, I also had very strong criticisms of the place. There was a strong divide between seniors and juniors at the dining tables. The senior class overtook a large majority of the long tables, leaving out the juniors, who sat at smaller round tables on the fringe. I did not notice much intermingling between the two class years. Members would sit with the same people, most often their friends or people in their teams or performance groups. In fact, bickering felt like the last time I got to meet anyone new.

I also personally did not enjoy Tower’s extravagant social events, as much as I, an extroverted extrovert, thought I would. Especially when the toasts happened, and cheers of “McKinsey chug” and “BCG chug” and “Microsoft chug” echoed through the dining room, it felt like the “drinking” chants were mostly aimed at people interested in finance, consulting, and tech. This left out and belittled others who were not as interested in these particular career paths.

I thought I could find my home in Tower, but instead, I found something more like a waiting room. Ironically, knowing so many people there might have discouraged me from trying to meet new people outside my circles. Yet it wasn’t my Tower friends who disappointed me — it was finally seeing for the first time what a Bicker-only club was like, and the deadly combination of cliques, fanciness, and unhealthy food that ultimately pushed me away from the club. I also want to emphasize, however, that I bickered in the fall, and as most members bicker in the spring, I did not have the opportunity to meet as many new members. I’d highly recommend, if you bicker, to bicker in the spring when more students are doing it, so you meet others who are in the same boat as you.

I left only three weeks after I joined. I wish I had stayed there longer and made more of an effort to branch out, and possibly not think too much about the “social” or “moral” impact of eating clubs. Sometimes, I wish I could have just been happy with where I was instead of feeling discontent with what I did not have. I also do not think I gave myself enough time to adjust to the new environment. In hindsight, I should have stayed longer and tried it out for a full semester. I might have had a completely different experience.

Tower might have been a disappointment for me, but that was not the case for many of my friends. I’ve heard that Tower has changed a lot since that time. From visiting and eating there after I dropped the club, I’ve also seen how its cliquishness and division between grades have lessened.

COLONIAL: My first trap

In between Tower and Colonial, I got off the waitlist and joined 2D for a semester. Eventually I left the co-op as well, for reasons I won’t delve into for this piece. I joined Colonial in the spring because most of the people in my dance team were in it, and it felt natural and convenient for me to want to eat with my teammates at Colonial.

Another reason why I wanted to join Colonial was because I heard they had a constant supply of fruit and tasty Asian food. I loved Colonial’s food, and every time I went in I had great conversations with friends from my dance team. But I also could see myself doing the very thing I had condemned people in Tower for — sitting with their friends and not bothering to branch out. I started to understand why people in Tower, or any eating club for that matter, did that. It was just so easy and comfortable — after a long day, you just want to rest and eat with people you can be yourself around.

Since my dance group had a large number of people in the club, it felt like we dominated Colonial. I secretly loved that feeling, the feeling of “owning the place.” That experience stopped me from judging the seniors at Tower for doing the same thing. I understood why people act that way in social settings. We are naturally social creatures whose instincts are to find and form communities that make us feel a sense of safety and ownership. It’s tiring to always be branching out. It makes us feel vulnerable and scared. Yet it made me torn to think that I was also contributing to this kind of insular community.

Even though it felt easy, being in Colonial also felt like a trap. In Colonial, I felt like I was always surrounded by people who were too similar to me. It felt like I was sitting in an echo chamber. I felt like something important was missing — the whole point of college, I felt, was to bring a world of people together in rooms full of diverse conversations and hearty discourse. In Colonial, I felt trapped in an environment similar to the one I grew up in. Personally, I was hoping I would be able to have more unique, eye-opening conversations instead of hearing similar narratives to my own. 

Because I valued independence and diversity more than I valued comfort, I decided not to return to Colonial after that semester, despite genuinely liking the food and people there. Maybe I was just afraid I wasn’t challenging myself enough. Whatever it was, my gut was telling me to forgo contentment and choose change.

Looking back, I wish I didn’t act on my “flight response” to being caught in — what seemed like at that time — a one-dimensional environment. Leaving the Colonial community meant breaking ties with my members of my dance team, something that was inevitable because of our different instincts, yet nonetheless saddening.

CAP: My first betrayal

The main reason why I chose to bicker Cap again was because that year, the majority of my closest senior friends were in it. Since they were part of the class I came into Princeton with, I wanted to spend more time with them before they graduated. I also felt less nervous to bicker Cap this time.

After getting into Tower, I now believed that getting hosed wasn’t necessarily a reflection on my poor character, nor was it a statement that I was not the “Cap” type (whatever that even meant). It might just have been that I didn’t know enough people in the club at that time. There could be such a thing as “right club, wrong timing.” 

I also realized from my conversations with people in Terrace, Tower, and Colonial, that when people were genuinely less afraid to be themselves, they made the clubs better — more welcoming, more diverse, and more joyful. Ironically, the less I cared about fitting the club’s “identity,” the more I got along with people in that club during Bicker.

Thus, I took that mentality into bickering at Cap. Bickering for the third time taught me a lot about how much I, as well as the eating club system, had changed, even within the span of two years.

Cap got rid of its games and replaced them with more one-on-one conversations. This was huge. I’d like to think that this truly transformed the way I viewed Cap, as well as how Cap viewed its members. It removed a lot of the fake “acting” and “trying to sound funny” during the Bicker process. This time around, I found that I truly enjoyed getting to know the people I was talking to during Bicker. That opened up space for interesting, genuine, and honest conversations.

Fortunately, I did get into Cap that fall. I was honestly very happy. I had such a great time meeting new people, and I was genuinely excited to get to know them more that semester. I also felt like I had gotten in because of who I truly was, not who I was pretending to be.

However, being a member of Cap was a lot harder than getting in. I had to get used to stares from people who didn’t know me — former members wondering who the heck this new fall recruit was. These looks were deeply unsettling despite my continued efforts to remind myself that my worries were probably all self judgements conjured up in my own head. Even though I stayed in the club for the entire semester, I couldn’t completely get over this outsider feeling.

Because I felt unwelcome by some members, I did not stay long enough in the club (outside of meals) to talk and hang out with these people who I barely knew. I also often brought outside friends (who I was closer with and who were in other eating clubs) into Cap for meals, which meant I had less chances to get to know Cap members during meals. To be honest, the best part of being in Cap that semester was being able to use Meal Exchanges to see my other friends who were also in other eating clubs. When I didn’t have people who I knew to eat with at Cap, I would choose to eat in the old dining room, where people half-studied, half-ate, instead of the main dining area, where much of the talking and socializing occurred.

In the main dining area, it was common to join any open table first before starting a new table. Cap took pride in this tradition, which was an attempt to ensure people did not form cliques during meal times. Wasn’t this exactly what I wished other eating clubs had?

Right after Bicker, former members were really eager to get to know the small selection of newbies who just joined, and I myself was excited to get to know them too. However, I noticed their enthusiasm died down shortly afterwards. For example, when setting my plate down at a table of members whom I hadn’t previously known, I felt a sense that these people didn’t want me to be there. It didn’t seem at all like the way people had treated me during Bicker.

Thus, I subconsciously started isolating myself. As junior year picked up and I accumulated more responsibilities, I rarely put time into socializing at dinner or hanging out afterwards. I also wouldn’t show up to many of the nights out, forgoing them for other “chiller” activities, like board games, movie nights, and earlier bedtimes. It wasn’t a surprise then, during Cap formals, when I was called out by a Christmas-themed shoutout: “All I want for Christmas is Lillian Chen. Wait, who’s that again?” I felt betrayed by the very club I had hoped to call home.

Being called out like that seemed unfair to me. I might not have been the most active member of Cap, but I was still reflecting the positive nature and culture of Cap by also treating other people who were not in Cap with compassion and inclusivity. Why did this call-out make me feel like I had to limit my time and connections to Cap only?

It is unfortunate that people in Cap might not have seen all different sides of me, since I wasn’t present there. But belittling and viewing its “less active” members as strangers is to discredit their impact on the rest of the community.

If everyone in an eating club only talked to people in the club, they would insulate themselves from the greater Princeton community and push away people on the fringe.

I might have “guested in” more non-Cap members than talked with actual members. But that might have allowed more people to recalibrate their judgments of Cap and make Cap’s culture more accessible to others.

For example, the majority of my non-Cap friends originally thought Cap food was awful and would never have wanted to bicker there. But after one meal with me in Cap, they wanted to be guested back in again because of how much they loved the dishes and the space. My friends were quick to assume that, unlike Colonial, Cap doesn’t have any Asian food or an eclectic salad bar, which isn’t true. My friends loved Cap’s vegetarian friendly and numerous Asian night options.

At the same time, many people idolized Cap as being the “best club.” But after talking with me and hearing my experiences, they could understand how each eating club had its strengths and weaknesses. Even the best club still had room to improve. This information can become so valuable to the greater Princeton community — if these outsiders take the information with them into their own eating clubs, they can reshape other community groups in a more positive way.

I don’t think it was bad that I let many outsiders into Cap, and went outside of Cap so often. Maybe it could become a new norm, for eating clubs to become more fluid and interconnected. Frankly, there is so much more to college and your life than being in an eating club. The world is large enough for us all to be in many groups, and not tie our whole identity to any particular one of them.

Eating clubs can still be a healthy part of the Princeton experience, if we are intentional about it. Every one of my eating club experiences was enlightening. I learned that eating clubs can change, and I am pleased to see them evolving into more inclusive communities.

I also believe there is still much that needs to be done to improve the Bicker and eating club system to make it more fair and less about who you know. I believe the energy you give is the energy you receive. Former members need to try harder to include new members, especially those who seem to be drifting away or self-isolating, instead of judging and bad-mouthing them. New members need to work twice as hard to engage with the community, even when it feels scary or burdensome.

My biggest lesson from my eating club experiences was that a community isn’t established without work. A place doesn’t just become a home once you enter it — it takes lots of effort, time, and commitment to really build a connection with a place, and for people to trust you as well.

As long as Princeton students continue to grow and wrestle with what it means to be inclusive, our community will only grow stronger. We must never grow complacent in who and where we are.

All four eating clubs taught me a lot about relationships — how it's not only the environment that changes to fit a person. No matter where I ended up, I would never find a home if I didn’t treat a place as such. It’s not merely up to a system or bureaucracy to dictate the world we want to live in. Through our actions, we as students have the power to make a place more or less inclusive.

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