1. Unassuming significance
That building meant nothing when you first stepped onto campus — now it's a character in your story. The strongest memories come without warning. They’re spontaneous, inherently attached to their places and people. This place retains these memories, and they flash when you pass by, even years later. The roof of Walker Hall. Bored after dinner, my friends thought of a dare. Each time I pass, I remember our collective disbelief and thrill at the possibility of climbing it. East Pyne recalls freshman Spanish, with laughter and wasted time and growing friendship. Whig and Clio remind me of a spontaneous, liquor-fueled call, prompting a winter night around Cannon Green — a night adorned with conversations on the marble steps, looking at the stars from lawn chairs in McCosh courtyard. This place is special, and remarkable ordinary moments are the proof.
2. Shifting seasons
It’s hot, and you’re not happy to wake up sweating. But the sun beams in through the glass, and the short sleeves and sundresses and shorts and clear sky make it okay. After the trek up Elm you arrive in class damp, but so does everyone else. There are frisbees, ice cream, and warm nights at soccer games. Late summer is perfect.
Then, one morning, you awaken buried under the covers. Overnight, it dropped ten degrees. You dig out your jacket for crisp walks over leaves, and you marvel at how the colors change daily until the trees have forgone their cheery green for deep reds and oranges. Weeks later, they fall. It’s cold now, bare branches tapping the window and the heater banging. The Gothic shadows and stone seem deeper and more mysterious. Overnight, a cover of snow brings light and the sky is richer in blue. There is hot chocolate and scarves, warm coats and close conversations — even out in the sharp air and dark night.
Slowly it melts, greens reviving and flowers cautiously opening. Layers are shed, days grow longer, and outside we stay. Cheers grow at 1952 Stadium, talking and laughter reverberate throughout every courtyard, and we grasp every extra moment, knowing June approaches. Then, it all begins again.
3. Supporting characters
She swipes your prox daily with the brightest smile. He always asks how class was, and wonders if you finished that book yet. You wave as they pass by, and they tell you to bring an umbrella — it’s going to rain today. He is at every game, in the bleachers and on the field, cheering them on. They are a comfort, a spark of positivity, and a familiar face in our scheduled chaos. In dining halls, dorms, outside, inside, everywhere. We appreciate them, and hope they know what they mean to us. They make this a home.
4. McCosh 50
You’re late, and everyone knows it. The wooden floor creaks as you try to quietly shut the door and take a seat. The professor has already begun. He’s talking about Socrates. Or nuclear physics. Sometimes “Harry Potter” or “Game of Thrones.” The material doesn’t sink in as much as the setting — the cavernous room, lit with chandeliers and trimmed in dark wood. How many other minds have wandered here? Hundreds of students file out down the stairs with you, through the heavy doors, underneath the inscription. Maybe you remember nothing from the lecture today, but that room demands you to retain “democracy, and faith, and righteousness, and love of unseen things that will not die.”
5. The crowd after a win
We win a lot. But the pure joy of the people around you never dulls in clarity. When the Tigers take down the Crimson, Bulldogs, and Bears, the people around you yell, scream, and cheer. It binds the bleachers together and blankets the area with a sense of belonging. This is our place. For this crowd, it’s personal. We sit with them in class and they live next door. For months, we watched them wake up early to run, lift, and stretch. We watched them stay up late, practicing and strategizing. And it worked. They come together, celebrating, and then turn to the crowd. With the sacrifices rewarded, everyone revels in the privilege of being the ones in orange and black. We are the winners. Always.
6. The first night back
Every break is both too long and not long enough. You didn’t properly catch up on sleep, nor work ahead on assignments, or unplug enough to fully relax. But you also missed this — the hugs, the knock on your door, the hallway chat, constant noise, the unpacking. Now you’re here again. Lying in bed to the sounds of campus settling down. Watching the light fade outside your window. You feel the anticipation of a new semester tomorrow. Some things known, others to come. The first night back. Our place.
7. Firestone during finals
We are tired, but the air is buzzing. Everyone you know — and those you don’t — surround you and seventy miles of books. The B floor is my pick — I can’t handle the nervous silence one floor below, yet I need to be underground. Darkness through the windows makes me aware of the hour and my need to sleep, but I’m not close to finished. Anything goes during this week — pizza for breakfast, five coffees, naps on the floor. You just nod, understanding. It’s a comfort, watching others stress with you. Despite the missing words, the lacking memorization, the pages left, we feel alive. We’re together, and the release of Dean’s Date is only hours away. It will get done.
8. Crossing paths between class
It takes about two weeks. You add, you drop, and you start to carve the route you’ll take each Monday and Wednesday. Then you notice the patterns. You pass her down Washington, and cross him outside East Pyne every other day, just before 10 a.m.. You smile, you nod, and they become a part of your routine. Soon you’ll notice if they’re missing: Did I leave too early? Are they skipping class today? Some of these people we’re close with, others are acquaintances. But even if I don’t know their names, I know she’ll be holding a coffee. She likes Small World. He’ll be wearing the same black jacket, and be locking his bike when he waves. Our paths will overlap, until the semester ends. Then patterns reset, and new faces start to smile as we pass. But they stay familiar, even outside of their designated time and place. They multiply; by year four, you have her and him, and him and her, and tens of connections by chance. These habits bring us together.
9. Friends of friends
“How did you two meet?”
At the beginning, you know the answer — same zee groups, days spent bonding on a hike during Outdoor Action, hours of struggling through Writing Seminar together. A few months in, that changes. When they ask how we know each other, we look at each other, puzzled: Maybe precept, last year? Oh, you weren’t in that class. What about that club? No, we joined together. The exact moment is murky, the timeline even more so. One week you were strangers, the next you ran back, laughing, through the rain to the library after a much-too-long study break. Someone introduced you, and then you had a friend. The full story becomes less important until it fades entirely. After you graduate, it’s simple: we met in college, at Princeton.
10. The moment
It could be during the walk home from the Street in the middle of the night. The shadow of the chapel almost hides him entirely, until your echoing footsteps through the arch outside McCosh 50 sparks the fox into a run, directly across your path.
Or maybe it’s during that bleary, exhausting trek up Blair Arch towards your 8:30 a.m. Writing Seminar, when the sunlight hits just right and suddenly you’re awake.
Perhaps it’s when you’re laughing so hard you can’t breathe with your friends at drunk meal. Or the time your professor held class on picnic blankets in the spring air. Or maybe it’s that night when the bonfire lit up Cannon Green, illuminating thousands of cheering faces, all packed tight, a sea of orange and black.
Sometimes it’s more obvious — the change in your stride when you pass a tour group, knowing each person wants what you have. They watch you open the heavy stained glass door to Chancellor Green, dreaming of what you might be reading, thinking, studying, speaking about. Who you’re doing it with.
Every one of us has the moment when we realize we’re here. We have arrived. Abreast in our generation at Princeton. We are in love, and our love is returned. And even when it’s over, we are welcomed back for the rest of our lives.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was right to write a book about this place. It deserves many more.
And he was right to call it “This Side of Paradise.”
Caroline Kirby is a senior in the Politics Department. She can be reached at ckirby[at]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[at]dailyprincetonian.com.