Last February, I found out that I had been selected for the ReachOut Fellowship, a Princeton program that selects senior undergraduate students to complete year-long independent service projects both within and outside of the United States. For my project, I had proposed to spend a year living in Santiago, the capital of Chile, and working with the Museum of Memory and Human Rights and the Living Refugee Archive. I was nervous to move so far away from home, but I knew that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience a different culture and learn about Chilean history at such a crucial time. This September marks the 50th anniversary of the military coup that initiated Chile’s 17-year dictatorship. For my project, I would conduct interviews with people who were exiled from Chile during the dictatorship.
Embarking on my own path has forced me to consider my identity outside of Princeton and the tradeoffs that arise when leaving the Orange Bubble. In many ways, the first year out of college is about finding yourself and growing as a person — learning to live on your own, to make friends outside of college, and to transition into the “real world.” As much as I love my project, I have also found it difficult to strike a balance between public service and personal development. When envisioning my project, I had imagined that these two threads — public service and personal growth — would easily intertwine, with my service to the community helping me learn more about myself. However, integrating these priorities has not been as clear-cut as I forecasted.
I’ve also learned my experience is not unique. A recent reading of Caroline Kitchener ’14’s book “Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year out of College” — where Kitchener follows four of her classmates, as well as herself, through their first year out of college — reveals the common struggles Princeton graduates face. In some ways, I relate so intensely to Kitchener’s story. She opts to live in a shared house in D.C. in order to meet other recent graduates and find community; I live in a house with four other exchange students. She starts the book with her walk to the baccalaureate ceremony, searching for her friends in the massive line and trying to pin her cap down. I remember that feeling from three months ago, trying to locate my friends using a blurry picture and Find My Friends. In fact, throughout the book, she references quirks of life at Princeton — eating club stereotypes, McCosh Hall, certain professors — that remind me of how collective the Princeton experience is. Even though Kitchener and I graduated almost 10 years apart, we shared four years in common — and even though everyone experiences Princeton differently, certain elements are unchanged.
More generally, however, this book caused me to reflect on how Princeton and the relationships I formed there continue to stay with me. Kitchener focuses on the women’s romantic relationships — their decisions on whether to stay with their college partners or with the people they date after graduation. Perhaps my sample is biased, or perhaps hers is, but I think she overemphasizes this aspect of postgrad life. For me, the loss of community that I feel most strongly is more pervasive. On campus, I understood myself through a series of labels that I fit in. I was an English major in Tiger Inn. I was a SHARE Peer and a Peer Representative. These classifications meant something on campus, both to myself and to the people I met. In Chile, however, they mean nothing. Instead, I have to carve out my identity apart from Princeton, figure out who I am when I’m thousands of miles away from all my friends and family, and figure out who I am separated from Princeton and my friends. At the same time, however, I am surprised by how much my personality is intertwined with my life at Princeton. Do I insist on walking everywhere here because that’s who I am, or because four years at a “campus school” have left me unable to imagine taking the metro to class? Do I do the crossword every morning because I love the crossword, or because I have fond memories of doing it with my friends? One of the women that “Post Grad” follows ends her two-year relationship upon graduating and suddenly feels like she doesn’t know who she is: “The image that had provided all the instructions for Michelle’s new identity was gone, and now she had to improvise.” The general sentiment remains the same: How do you figure out who you are without Princeton?
I’ve found difficulty in navigating my many priorities. I want to do my job at the museum well, but I also want to explore my new home. When I only have a year here, it sometimes feels difficult to do both well. Every weekend poses the same dilemma: Should I log extra hours at the museum, adding to the spreadsheet of survivors that I’m currently working on? Should I travel somewhere nearby and see more of the country? Should I just stay in and clean my apartment, which is still not fully unpacked? The truth about working in public service is that there are many obstacles. For every enlightening interview I’ve conducted, I’ve also spent many hours dealing with administrative roadblocks — out-of-date addresses, uncooperative nonprofits, and my own intermediate Spanish skills. In my first 1.5 months here, I’ve felt both incredibly grateful for this opportunity and doubtful about whether I was the right person for the job. Perhaps this project would be better suited for someone fluent in Spanish, or someone with a better grasp of Chilean history. However, I have a responsibility, not only to the ReachOut board, but also to the survivors I’ve spoken with, to do my project well.
Today marks exactly 1.5 months in Santiago, and I simultaneously feel more and less settled than I expected to at this point. Perhaps the strangest part is seeing life go on at Princeton, as my now-senior friends attend their first week of classes, go to Lawnparties, and work on their thesis proposals. It feels strange to me that I’m not there, but I also wouldn’t say that I would rather be there than where I am right now. I miss Princeton, but I also love the independence that comes with living in an apartment rather than a dorm room, a big city rather than a college town. I miss my friends, but I’m also trying to immerse myself in this experience. Balancing all these different emotions is a challenge that I haven’t quite figured out yet. For now, I’m just taking it day by day.
Caroline Subbiah ’23 graduated from the English department and currently lives in Santiago, Chile. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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