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Graduate student in an undergraduate world

<h5>Spring Break 2022. The vast majority of undergrads had fled Forbes, but I remained.</h5>
<h6>Emily Miller / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Spring Break 2022. The vast majority of undergrads had fled Forbes, but I remained.
Emily Miller / The Daily Princetonian

As a rising fifth-year graduate student, I have lived in Princeton longer than anywhere else in my adult life. Eating local produce means tomatoes and blueberries — not the peaches from my hometown in Western Colorado. My fridge is now stocked with beer from Cape May — not New Belgium, not Ithaca Beer Company, not Flying Dog in Maryland. I own more orange than I ever believed was possible. Over the past four years, I have traded my American Airlines miles for United’s so I am better prepared for the certain chaos of Newark Liberty International Airport. Yet, I often feel like a minority among the graduate student body in claiming Princeton as my home.

The residential community of Princeton was honestly a big draw when I was deciding where to pursue my PhD. I loved the idea of having our own Graduate College, having our own bar, and being able to walk to campus. I was intrigued by the lack of law or business or medical schools, as this meant that the majority of graduate students would be PhDs, bonded together by a drive to learn more about our world — whether it be studying contemporary challenges like curing cancer, capturing carbon, or delving into the culture of the past. The graduate community is robust, with a dedicated staff, grad student resources for skills and professional development, as well as affinity groups, a Graduate Student Government, and other student leaders that give up their free time to host events. 

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However, when I arrived on campus, my rosy picture of grad student life was challenged, as I was surrounded by the rhetoric of Princeton as an undergraduate institution. But, what I soon realized was that the undergraduate experience and graduate experience are intertwined. I’ve helped teach the small courses that Princeton loves to tout. I’ve mentored undergraduate students in their summer projects and theses. I’ve enthusiastically written letters of recommendation, served on panels about job searches, and both formally and informally connected with undergraduate students as part of my job as a resident graduate student. All of this builds a unique undergraduate experience and helps connect me to this institution. 

Yet, the famed “undergraduate focus” is sometimes impossible to ignore. Back in March 2020, I found out about the closure of the university from an undergraduate group chat. There has been limited graduate student coverage in Princeton’s community newspaper. A recent report on campus mental health pointed out that the graduate student body only has one outreach counselor, despite graduate students comprising 37 percent of the student body.

Moreover, the prevailing attitude that Princeton was not really a place graduate students call their home has been yet another barrier. When I came for visit days as a newly admitted student, the dominant message I heard was that Princeton was boring and dull, a place you needed to endure before moving on to bigger and better things. During my first year, no one else in my cohort lived in the Graduate College, and only a couple of students lived on campus at all. 

Initially, admitting to liking life at Princeton felt like I was broadcasting my “uncoolness,” or that I was content with the University’s and town’s shortcomings, or that I was okay with letting the institution dominate my life. Once, I was told living in campus housing during the early days of the pandemic was “subjecting myself to tyranny.”  

A selling point to Princeton hinges on what it is close to, New York and Philadelphia, not what is here. Granted, Princeton is lacking in some things, especially with cultural accommodations or the scarcity of religious communities. Similarly, graduate school is defined by its temporal location, a mere stop on your way to, again, bigger and better things. People have strong attachments to their undergraduate institutions and their first jobs, but graduate school? Nah. Part of this comes from the liminal status of being a graduate student. We straddle a line between being an employee and a student. We are independent adults, but also part of a residential community and subject to the whims of university policy.

But, graduate school and Princeton are not transitory. Most of us will spend years of our young adulthood in this place. Many, if not most, of us will live here for longer than the undergrads. While some of Princeton is not built for students, graduate or undergraduate — I am looking at you, Hermès 2023 and Harvest Restaurant Group — I have found my favorite Indian restaurant, favorite croissant place, and housewarming cards for my friends who are checking off traditional boxes of adulthood. I look forward to the seasonality of Wawa’s coffees. I have somehow racked up over $15 in fines at the public library. 

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Where some may see a sleepy, swanky, or soulless small town, I see opportunity. I co-author and concert-go with friends. I have helped friends fall in love and grapple with grief. I improved at coding, writing, teaching, ice skating, singing, and interviewing. 

One goal of my writing this year is to describe some aspects of the past four years that have made me come to think of Princeton as my home. At the same time, I know there are structural challenges that go beyond individual attempts to foster community and work-life balance. Graduate school is tough and, at times, all-consuming. Last year, I wrote a guest essay about my challenges recovering from an emergency hospitalization. After publishing that, several friends and strangers reached out to me and mentioned they had similar stories and struggles. The message was clear: I was not alone.  

I do not want a repeat of my undergraduate life. I am at a stage in my life where I want parties to end, not start, at 11 p.m. Instead of figuring out how to pay tuition via loans and work-study, I am excited to earn a wage that is above the per capita median for Mercer County. In addition to reading research papers, I want to write them. I choose to call Princeton my home because I want to have a stake in where I live and where I work. I want what I do to matter, not just in the future, but today. 

Graduate school is a never-ending exercise in deciphering what matters. Pressure to produce top-quality research and publish in the best outlets is frequently pitched as the only thing that matters. My well-being, friends and family, and community matter too. I hope some of my pieces this upcoming year will provide ideas for you to help define your own time here. As a graduate student, you may go through it all having never worn a Princeton Homecoming shirt or owned something with a tiger, but, if you want to, you can.

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Emily Miller is a fifth-year PhD candidate in Population Studies and Social Policy from Palisade, Colorado, and is a contributing writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at eenm@princeton.edu.

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect@dailyprincetonian.com.

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