When I first arrived at Princeton, I thought my only obligation as a student was to try my hand at every opportunity that presented itself to me. In my mind, this meant taking the most interesting classes and meeting as many people as possible. It meant doing anything and everything I could ever want to do. To me, college was a time to be selfish. I worked hard to get here — why shouldn’t I make the most of it?
I’ve realized, though, that as much as the University feels like the center of my universe, there is more worth caring about than just myself and my immediate surroundings. As much as the University has a community of its own, Princeton cannot disentangle itself from the surrounding town. Indeed, many of the reasons I’m excited for my next four years lie beyond Princeton’s campus.
I take for granted many of the things that I enjoy about the University. I often forget that the reason my bathroom is clean every morning and that I have food to eat for every meal is because of the people from the surrounding communities who work here. I find joy in newly paved pathways on campus and boba at every other event, but it doesn’t register that it’s thanks to the community around the University that we’re able to enjoy them. In reality, every part of the University that makes it my home is tied to the community supporting it.
In fact, I owe it to Princeton, the town where I chose to spend my college years in the first place. The area was a big part of why my parents were happy to see me enroll here. Instead of spending the most influential years of my life in a terrifying megacity or the middle of nowhere, I’d be in a picture-perfect college town.
After coming here, I’ve seen how often students and administrators act like the town is a source of pride for the University, even when it has little to do with us and everything to do with the community around us. The University’s website boasts about “the charm of Princeton,” creating an image of the town as an idyllic haven with “tree-lined neighborhoods.” Yet, all of this promotion occurs without any proposal of a deeper commitment to the town.
We Princetonians often fail to demonstrate care for the places or people beyond campus. We’re not exactly flocking to town events or vying to work off-campus. We don’t even mention the town beyond complimenting the color of the leaves and complaining about how little there is to do. More often, we’re content to ignore the world outside campus entirely, even when it’s precisely the community around us that makes life here possible. The town is our home for four years, and it offers us so much that we need and enjoy; surely we can do so much more for the place we live in, no?
Some of us already do. The Pace Center lists programs that work with immigrants, schools, and conservation efforts. Other student groups, even those that are not centered around community service, integrate service into their clubs so that members can get involved with the community through their pre-existing interests. Princeton University Ballet heads a chapter of Ballet & Books, where students plan extracurricular activities for young children to improve their literacy. The Figure Skating Club leads a skating program with the Special Olympics of Mercer County. Even if it’s through their membership in a club, students gain a sense of responsibility towards the community, and the community benefits in turn. However, too few students participate in these programs and stay siloed within the campus’s walls.
It does not take being a member of a committed organization to contribute to the town; any number of personal choices can change the campus’s attitude of ambivalence towards supporting the people who support us. Students could take more jobs off-campus; we’d see and meet more of the town than most of the University ever would. It would also be more meaningful to serve the members of the community in roles that are not always noticed but nevertheless essential. There are classes at the Arts Council and Pure Barre that provide us with enjoyment while bringing us closer to the community’s institutions and its people. There are plenty of ways we can become closer to the town and local region. However, we don’t act on them because we’ve grown comfortable with the way things are.
Recognizing what this community offers us is the first step toward finding gratitude. Acting on that gratitude is the first step toward giving a part of ourselves to the town in return. There is a great deal to enjoy about our experience on campus, but that doesn’t mean we should seclude ourselves either. There’s a wide world outside the campus we live in — a world to explore, contribute to, and leave our mark on. We can start with the one right outside the gates.
Sarah Park is a first-year intending to pursue a major in comparative literature. She is from Manila, Philippines, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.