The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit a piece to the Opinion section, click here.
I recently came back to Princeton as a staff member after graduating in 2016. I started off in the Center for Career Development and now serve as the Assistant Dean for Studies in Rockefeller College. Before I returned to Princeton, I prepared myself to relive the anticipation of starting my first year, the joy I felt as an RCA, and even the feelings of isolation I grappled with throughout my undergraduate career.
What I had forgotten about, however, was a challenge that is common for students at prestigious institutions like Princeton. Through meeting with graduate students in the Center for Career Development and with undergraduates in Rockefeller College, I was reminded that students consistently wrestle with the feeling that they must “live up” to Princeton’s name. It can be overwhelming to decide what paths to pursue, and uncertainty about living up to expectations only makes those decisions more stressful. But there is no right or wrong way to navigate Princeton and life after. As a community, we should encourage healthy exploration and growth without falling victim to feelings of inadequacy or comparison.
In my staff roles, I’ve seen the weight of expectations — students’ or others’ — firsthand. I’ve had students reveal, for example, that they are worried about selecting the “right” courses in order to take advantage of Princeton’s unique opportunities. Others feel that they carry the weight of peer, family, or community expectations surrounding what they should study or do after college. And still others are concerned about picking a career or a major with an impact appropriate for a Princeton graduate.
As a student, I remember first arriving at Princeton as a first-year and feeling a sense of awe and wonder about being a student here. I couldn’t believe that I’d been given this opportunity, especially as a low-income student who applied to college through the QuestBridge program. But my awe and wonder eventually morphed into anxiety and guilt. At the time, I was set on becoming a dermatologist. After taking MOL 214, however, I realized I was not especially passionate about the hard sciences. Soon, I feared that if I wasn’t going to be a doctor, I was not really living up to being at Princeton.
The root of my doubts was twofold. First, I felt like I’d let down my family by not taking science courses and pursuing medicine. Their expectations of what I should do at Princeton were always at the forefront of my mind. Second, I had a very oversimplified picture of a Princeton graduate and what they go on to do, a feeling I suspect many people on campus still have.
If you asked a student to list off Princeton alumni, they’d probably start with heavy hitters like Michelle Obama ’85, Jeff Bezos ’86, or Sonia Sotomayor ’76. In some ways, these alumni have become the standard we measure ourselves against. And though it’s great to have high standards, it can sometimes feel overwhelming and demoralizing. These people are, in most cases, the exception and not the norm. Not everyone who graduates from Princeton will become a celebrated public figure, create a corporate empire, or serve on the Supreme Court. These figures are easy to conjure in our minds because of their notoriety, and not necessarily because they are the epitome of success at or after Princeton.
In fact, the most effective way to amend our perception of a “successful” alum is through talking to or learning about people with diverse experiences. Offices like the Center for Career Development bring in many undergraduate and graduate alumni panelists and speakers to demonstrate how they used their Princeton education. While these alumni are often successful in their fields, as students they experienced many of the challenges and feelings of uncertainty we face now. There are also robust resources, like TigerNet, that allow students to connect with tens of thousands of undergraduate and graduate alumni. Talk with people who do things that may be unexpected but nonetheless sound interesting. Reach out to alumni that come from backgrounds similar to your own or, better yet, from those that are radically different. In this small way, you can expose yourself to alternate paths and, hopefully, realize that there are so many valuable and rewarding ways to move through and beyond Princeton.
We should also be more open about our challenges. One common misconception among students is that they may be the only ones grappling with certain feelings or worries — that is never the case. I thought I was alone in feeling inadequate during my sophomore year, so I started filling out transfer applications. What ultimately stopped me from leaving was talking with peers about my challenges and hearing those experiences reflected in what they were also going through. My only regret was not having these conversations earlier. Building a supportive community where we acknowledge challenges is key to each of our successes.
Ultimately, although it may seem cliché or idealistic, what matters most for success is you and your perception of your academic plan and post-Princeton path. If we can distance ourselves from overwhelming senses of expectation, we are freer to explore our genuine interests. After I felt settled in my linguistics major, I started taking courses outside of my comfort zone, like a religion class taught by Professor Judith Weisenfeld GS ’92. Though the course was not directly related to my linguistics major, I value the information I learned and the perspective I gained through that class. I wish I had started exploring more fields in my first and second years. The entire purpose of a Princeton education is to broaden and deepen your understanding of the world. Allow yourself to explore what you find captivating.
You, and thousands of people before you, forged and will forge paths across a range of disciplines, experiences, contexts, and industries. Talk with your peers about the challenges you face, the expectations you feel, and the excitement you have about the paths you’re considering. Use the wide range of resources available to help you thrive here.
Some Princeton alums will become celebrated public figures, create corporate empires, or serve on the Supreme Court. For some, a Princeton degree is a means to a higher-paying career that will allow them to support ailing family members. Others may use the skills and knowledge gained here to volunteer or advocate within their home communities. Some may go on to pursue Ph.D.s and explore topics like the disproportionate effects of climate change on certain populations. All of these paths — and any other hypothetical outcome — are valid and meaningful uses of a Princeton education.
Nicholas Tippenhauer ’16 is currently Assistant Dean for Studies in Rockefeller College. As an undergraduate he was an independent concentrator in linguistics and a Whitman RCA. He got his PhD in developmental psychology at Vanderbilt University. He can be reached at email@example.com. This piece represents the author’s opinion alone.