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Orange Key tours must start telling the true Princeton narrative

<h6>Annabelle Berghof / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Annabelle Berghof / The Daily Princetonian

I remember standing in front of Nassau Hall as a mesmerized high school sophomore, hanging on to my tour guide’s every word as she highlighted the strong emphasis on undergraduate education, time-honored traditions, the tight-knit residential college system, and the many other unique opportunities that Princeton offers. It was a magical experience that had me falling head over heels for the Orange and Black.  

Two years after that tour, I am privileged to call this place “home.” Yet this has come at the cost of realizing that my tour’s presentation of the University as a flawless wonderland could not be farther from the truth. 

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Even though my Tiger pride remains the same, it troubles me how often Princeton's student-led tours inadequately cover the University’s shortcomings. This is especially worrisome because, for some prospective applicants, a campus tour may be their first, and only, direct interaction with a representative from the University before they must gauge if it is a good “fit” for them, not only as an academic institution, but more importantly, as their future “home away from home.” 

I spoke with current Orange Key tour guide Sakura Price ’23 to learn more about the program. According to Price, tours typically last one hour and often prioritize the upper part of campus where Collegiate Gothic architectural masterpieces like Blair Arch, Firestone Library, and East Pyne Hall are located. My own experience trailing along excited prospective applicants on a recent Orange Key tour confirmed what Price told me, and what I recall from my original tour two years ago.

I only realize now, as a proud Butlerite, that the south of campus is where most ongoing construction takes place, with noticeably fewer buildings in that Collegiate Gothic style that makes Princeton famous.

Not only is the tour route designed to uphold the impression of the glamorous Princeton often captured in photos, the information presented to visitors on the tour also falls short of a comprehensive and honest portrayal of the student experience. 

Price told me that sometimes when a visitor asks about a controversial issue on campus, she tends to provide a nuanced answer, so as not to “put [a] certain image on Princeton.” She added that if she were not in a position of representing the University, or serving as “a face of the campus for that person,” she might give very different answers based on her personal experiences. 

At times, these controversial issues are not even a part of the conversation. During the recent tour I went on, topics such as eating clubs or the stress culture did not immediately come up, despite their omnipresence in student life on campus. It wasn’t until a visitor inquired about the stressful environment that the topic was addressed. Overall, my tour portrayed Princeton as an incredibly happy place with happy students. But we all know that some facets of Princeton culture mean this is not always the case.

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Granted, sensitive issues such as the Bicker process of certain eating clubs or imposter syndrome are more relevant to current students than prospective applicants. Nevertheless, it is these experiences that determine how truly happy we are as Princeton students, and prospective students deserve to know this, even if it could significantly affect their ultimate decision of whether to apply.

By not necessarily distorting the truth, but rather failing to present the full scope of existing issues on campus, we are inadvertently raising false hopes for prospective students. If these students have the chance to call this place “home,” they will have to learn what it means to be a Princetonian the hard way, whether that comes through rejection from a student club that claims “no experience is required” or pulling an all-nighter at Firestone only to receive a low grade on the test. 

In this sense, the Orange Key program has failed to fulfill its core mission of letting prospective applicants “get a feel of the exciting community that will be your home.” I’m sure no Princeton student can truly call this place “home” without experiencing, at some point in their Princeton career, the whole spectrum of the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

I urge the University to encourage future Orange Key tours to present a more honest telling of the Princeton experience. Beyond simply listing the various resources available to help students overcome the stress culture, tour guides should consider mentioning how Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) can sometimes fall short of their duties, as happened during the challenging time of virtual classes last year when students needed help the most. 

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Beyond intentionally introducing various dining options besides eating clubs, explain how these clubs dominate the social scene on campus, and how it may be isolating for those who choose not to participate. This honesty is even more important given former President Shirley Tilghman’s assertion that the presence of eating clubs is usually “the single most common reason why [an accepted applicant] turns Princeton down.”

Princeton is imperfect. But it is those imperfections that humanize the “best damn place of all.” So let prospective students know Princeton for what it is, and what it is not. Let them know that Princeton is a work in progress, and that we need their help to make it even better. They deserve the truth.

Audrey Chau is a freshman from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She can be reached at nc3167@princeton.edu.

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