Honest reflections on my junior year at Princeton

Junior year was really not what I expected it to be. Coming back from my gap year, I had all these ideas about what I wanted to do differently, and how I would make the most of my time and get a lot out of being back at Princeton. In some ways, that did happen. I took some great classes that I was actually interested in and tried things that I wouldn’t have otherwise tried. But after my first semester back, I felt that I had lost a lot of the personal and mental growth that I had made during my time off, and I felt incredibly lonely. It seemed unthinkable that I would end up feeling more lonely in a school full of 5000 people my own age, than in the cities full of strangers that I lived in during my time off.

In January, I felt really lonely. I felt like I did my first semester all wrong, and I should have focused more on socializing and making friends and strengthening friendships. When I opened up to other people about this, I found out that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. That’s a common thing that happened, by the way. When I opened up to people about various challenges that I thought were idiosyncratic, I almost always found that they were tacitly present in everyone’s Princeton experience. For instance, the feeling of intense loneliness. I’m remembering the time I was walking back to the hotel when I visited Hakone last year. The streets were deserted, and it was so eerily quiet. Even though I was with Michael, I felt incredibly alone, because there was a feeling that we could have been the only two humans there! That was a different kind of lonely, though. To be surrounded by people and a message/5 minutes away from friends, and still feel lonely… And I think being at Princeton in particular doesn’t help the situation. One explanation that someone posited to me, and that I believe, is that because all the dormitory doors at Princeton are closed by default (and to leave them open would be a fire hazard!), it’s incredibly difficult for an environment of openness to exist. And because of that, it’s also difficult to be open with each other in social contexts, and it’s easy to feel alone in feeling alone. I went to visit CPS, and found out that they see 50% of the students on campus in any given year. Isn’t that crazy?

And even though my classes were rewarding, my academics took a lot more time, as a result of actually attending (most) classes regularly, taking more interesting/difficult classes, and wanting to understand the material. I want to talk about the positive aspects first. The Beginning Studies in Acting course I took in the fall was a really great introduction to acting for me, and it motivated me to pursue a theater certificate and become more involved with the theater department. And that was the first department I felt at home in on campus, despite having only been a part of it for a short period of time. Taking 1st-year Japanese both semesters was really time-consuming, but also rewarding because I got to know the professors and my classmates pretty well, which just never happens in a large C(O)S lecture. And taking East Asian History after 1800 in the spring was just so enriching; I felt more connected to my heritage, and felt that I could understand my parents better. It was definitely a class that I would never have taken if I didn’t go on my gap year.

Most of my negative experiences were actually within my major, in the COS department. I became pretty jaded about the department and CS in general after this year. It’s a large department, so I don’t really expect much, but I feel like I’ve only had neutral or negative experiences, with nothing really positive to redeem them. For instance, even when academic support is provided in COS courses, I’ve come to perceive that I can’t ask for help without being judged for not knowing something. I don’t feel a sense that the teachers are putting the needs of their students above their own mental laziness. For instance, in the Piazza (the online Q&A system) for one of my COS courses, I found that instructors would frequently give almost the answer that the question was looking for. A student would be confused about how to run a program, and the instructor would answer telling them to make the program executable with a certain command (chmod), but they could have easily instead just written the exact shell command to do the thing the question was asking about. The justification is that CS is a discipline where you have to Google things a lot, and they’re giving you that training. I see where that sentiment is coming from, but it just doesn’t make sense for a one-off command that someone just ends up memorizing. And for me, all these small questions really served to do is to make me feel frustrated at myself, and break down the confidence I built up while coding at the Recurse Center. And it’s difficult to admit that you’re having trouble with these things, because you feel like you’re going to get a non-answer or feel even more belittled. I never wanted to believe the stereotype that technical people were less capable of emotional connection before, but now I really see truth in that. In this entire year, I felt empathy from a COS instructor/the department once, and lack of empathy countless times. I do feel regret about my major.

This wasn’t really the blog post I imagined writing, but it’s what came out today. I feel that it’s selfish in many ways to complain about my Princeton experience, when to even have the experience is an incredible privilege. While I am so grateful to be at Princeton, I think to deny myself the ability to criticize this experience would be to invalidate my real experience, and by extension, myself.

I would love to hear about what other people have to say about their time at Princeton! Let’s talk about the things that are difficult to talk about.

One thought on “Honest reflections on my junior year at Princeton

  1. I definitely understand the experience of feeling lonely despite being surrounded by friends. In particular, I very strongly agree on your point that the perpetually — by mandate — closed doors at Princeton perpetuate a “closed off” culture. That, I think, is a major misstep by the administration, but unfortunately, one I doubt they will ever acknowledge.


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