Reflections on Princeton

For whatever reason, as more and more time elapses since commencement, I feel less and less motivated to write this blog post. (So I’ll focus more on content than on delivery haha.)

It’s so tempting to try to put my time at Princeton into a box by creating certain narratives about it. For instance, I definitely found myself getting sucked into the “best damn place of all” rhetoric during Reunions—and during graduation, feeling sentimental about/grateful for all of the relationships I cultivated (or wasn’t able to cultivate). But another challenge I have when I try to reflect on my undergrad is that it’s so difficult to separate everything that happened over the last five years from what constitutes my “Princeton experience.” In a way, it seems like everything that happened over the past five years needs to be understood against the broader context of Princeton. (Even my time away from school and the decisions that I made during my gap year were in reaction to it.)

Here are some of the categories that I feel like are significant in understanding the past 5 years and my thoughts on them.

Academics

One question that I’ve asked myself is “what did I actually learn?” And actually, I feel like I learned a lot. Although I’ve forgotten a good deal of content, I have learned a bunch of meta things and domain specific patterns, and know more about certain types of academic conventions. It’s weird though because getting better at things like “learning how to teach myself things” is a direct consequence of having poor instructors. I’m super grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about and be influenced by all sorts of disciplines, like architecture and acting.

“Regrets” / getting the “Princeton experience”

Regrets is in quotes because I’m trying not to believe in regret anymore. But there were many times at the end of my senior year when I felt some sadness about missed/forgone opportunities. (And actually right now, I’m realizing that those types of feelings come from wanting to optimize—having the “best” experience—which has been a toxic mindset for me.)

For instance, I never formed a close relationship to any of my computer science professors; I never went on a Broadway trip; I didn’t take a cool class that involved travel/once in a lifetime experiences; I never went inside every building on campus; I’ve never been to every eating club and co-op… These were some of the “regrets” that I fixated on but am no longer fixating on at this moment.

Disillusionment

I feel disillusioned about grades. What I came to realize was that there are specific and formulaic methods that people can use to be “successful” academically. For instance, going to office hours for help on a pset or assignment (or to develop a close relationship with your professor/TA), or making a specific and supported argument in a paper.

I also feel disillusioned to an extent about the extent to which the university supports its students. This was more personally salient to me during my first two years, but was reinforced later on through anecdotes and e.g., the Title IX protest.

Best damn place of all

I totally get this sentiment now. It’s easy for me to repress all the bad associations I have with this place because why would I want to relive those really hard times? And I do have so many positive memories associated with Princeton, and right now, I feel connected to other alums because of a weird sense of trauma bonding.

It was really hard

I honestly can’t believe/fathom how hard it was. I think it’s really easy for me to try to write off how hard it was after the fact, but I was under a lot of stress! I can point to my skin condition as an indicator of this. This past year, I’ve had more acne than I’ve had in years, and I’m pretty confident that it was my body’s outward manifestation of my internal stress. Looking back at the past couple years in particular, I am so amazed at how I was able to do all of the things that I did (which doesn’t even feel like that much, compared to other folks!!), and honestly I’m proud to have graduated.

Social

One of the best parts of Princeton was the people I met. (I would totally rewrite that to be less corny if I were focusing on delivery, btw.) I’m also really glad that I was able to experience the more conventional social scene this year, through attending and hosting pre-games and going to the street. Those were experiences that I wrote off my first three years, but I actually really appreciate them now. I still do wish there were more alternatives to those things, and more ways to meet new people on campus.

Growth

I am so grateful for all the ways I was able to change over the past five years. Many of those changes were not directly because of Princeton, but as I mentioned earlier, everything that happened can be seen as indirectly having happened because of Princeton. I do think that a lot of the challenging aspects of Princeton (e.g., architecturally enforced social isolation, geographic isolation, workload) did force me to grow, but I still don’t know if I agree with that type of parenting style.

Opportunities and privilege

Even though there were so many things that I didn’t take advantage of (see “Regrets”), I still had some really incredible opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere, especially getting funding to interview strangers and travel to China last summer. And to have gotten more resources and support to put on a solo show based on those experiences…wow… Also, I suspect that being a Princeton graduate will (unfairly) continue to afford me a bunch of privileges.

I understand what I didn’t before

When I started college, I remember struggling with trying not to care about grades, which seems like such an easy attitude now (maybe through exposure therapy). I think there are some lessons that are just too difficult to internalize until you go through experiences that force you to learn them. For instance, I didn’t understand until I started seriously thinking about life after graduation why people say that college is the best four years of your life.

If I had to do it all over again, would I?

This was a question on the senior survey that we had to fill out. I think that it would take a lot of conviction to say no, since that would be saying that you made the wrong decision and that you feel like the last several years of your life could have been better spent elsewhere. For me, there weren’t enough bad parts to make me say no. (Also, the teleological fallacy.)

The feeling of anxiety at Princeton

To give some context on why I’m writing this post: I have selective memory repression/loss and a form of aphantasia where I can’t relive past emotions (I briefly talked about this in my last video), and I’ve been feeling a lot of pre-nostalgia about my time at Princeton, so I want to record as much as I can while I’m still living it.

The level of anxiety I feel about my work at Princeton is insane and probably extremely unhealthy, despite me taking countermeasures like taking regular walks and making task lists. When I’m in an anxious time (midterms, weeks where I have a lot due—usually right before breaks) it’s difficult for me to sleep well, which is rarely a problem for me at other times. I can’t fall asleep because I’m thinking and maybe feeling guilty about all the work that I need to do/could be doing, and my sleep is restless because I wake up periodically in the night because (I think) my subconscious knows I have a lot of work to get done. I feel like I need to be a machine that just cranks out work. When I’m hanging out with people or doing anything other than work, I’m constantly aware of the trade off I’m making. Everything “extraneous” (including self-care) feels like a luxury that I will probably end up feeling guilty about. Even this morning when I submitted an assignment, I barely felt relief because I have a problem set I need to submit tonight, and even after that, I think it’ll take a few days before I can get out of this mental state and stop worrying about the 4 final papers (and project) I have due after break. There are things that I like about having final papers/exams after winter break, but that doesn’t undermine the very real emotional burden that results from it!

It’s a bit difficult to communicate this, since it’s not entirely logical, but one difficult thing is the awareness that it’s not entirely the “system” that’s creating the factors that make me feel so anxious, it’s also just me. For instance, if I “chose” not to have an existential crisis/emotional breakdown two weeks ago I wouldn’t have gotten behind on my work. Or if I just prioritized work more or less (either one works) then I would either have finished everything already or just give fewer shits about quality/deadlines.

I think the worst part of my anxiety is that it makes it difficult for me to feel anything else or even be present for extended periods of time. I predict that after I graduate, a majority of the most stressful moments in my life will be past me. I’m grateful in a way, though, to have had these experiences, since it gives me perspective in and on the other times. And of course I’m proud to be able to do everything that I’m able to do.

 

Fall semester (so far) in review

I’m taking 5 classes this semester, and something that’s been surprisingly nice is that I have a pretty regular schedule (and no classes on Fridays).

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 2.24.11 PM

Monday through Thursday, I have a class 11-12:30, a one hour lunch break, and then either a 1.5 or 3 hour-long class. I realized that having a consistent daily schedule really helps with establishing a regular sleep schedule and morning routine. Usually, I wake up a bit before my alarm at 9:20 (unless I go to bed late/am super tired, in which case I wake up later and skip breakfast), and have a slow and relaxed morning in. Usually I have time to walk to class early and either journal by the Woody Woo fountain or reflect inside the Richard Serra sculpture.

In terms of my classes…they’re definitely a lot of work as a whole, which I kind of touched on in my last post. I’ll just go through them one by one.

World Drama (English / Theater): I am taking this class to satisfy my requirements for the theater certificate, and I didn’t really have high expectations for it, but it’s probably my favorite class this semester. The work is manageable and quite regular (<100 pg. readings and maybe a short response for each class), and I enjoy the discussions. In general, for classes in disciplines that I’m not familiar with, the big things I want to learn about are how people in that discipline think and communicate, and what they think is important. I feel that I’m getting that in this course, and I also really appreciate that the contents of each class are, for the most part, directly influenced by what the students feel is interesting or important in each work. I’m also happy that I can participate in/contribute to the discussion despite my limited background. This class has also made me think a lot about the purposes and goals of theater, which has actually been really helpful for creating my thesis show as well.

Attitudes and Persuasion (Psychology): I had actually wanted to take a course about North Korea in this time slot, but wasn’t able to enroll in it, so I took this one instead (thinking that it would still be quite interesting). Unfortunately, this class is not what I had hoped it would be. I would have probably dropped it if I had made that realization (or been more confident in my intuitions…) in time. Although most of the people in the (~15 person) seminar are seniors in the psychology department, I don’t really feel like I’m learning much about the discipline and its discourse. Most of the discussion in that class is based on our personal experiences with and subjective evaluations of methods of advertisement, and it doesn’t feel like I’m learning a whole lot (other than just memorizing facts about certain studies and models). Fortunately, the class only meets once a week and is pretty relaxed, so I’m trying to just live with it.

The Asian American Family (Asian American Studies) – I feel like I only figured this class out quite recently. I was initially really confused about how to interact with the readings and what the professor wanted us to take away from them, but I feel like I got a better understanding after talking to Ab (one of my classmates) about it. I have a lot of respect for the people in this discipline because of how many modes of analyses they have to utilize. The only negative thing about that is that I feel like I can’t really contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way, but it’s fine because I still feel like I’m learning.

Automated Reasoning About Software (Computer Science) – I’m taking this class to satisfy my theory requirement for the COS department. Although this is a graduate level class, which was definitely a deterrence, I found the topic more interesting than the other available options, which is why I decided to enroll. I feel like I’ve gotten pretty lucky with both of my COS professors this semester, since they both seem like nice people who actually care about their students’ learning, and are effective lecturers. I actually don’t mind this course, but I do feel that the material is a bit too much for me to fully learn. My attitude towards this course now is to just learn as much as I can, and not get discouraged if I can’t learn it all, since this is my first time being exposed to most of this material, and I feel like I usually have to be exposed to something a few times before I can really learn it. The hardest part of this course is probably just trying to not compare myself to the grad students.

Information Security (Computer Science) – The teacher for this class is a really good lecturer, and I get the sense that he’s actually thought a lot about effective pedagogical practices. This is the second COS class I’ve taken in which the teacher tries to learn everyone’s name, and it’s the first COS class I’ve taken in which the teacher incorporates sections for discussion amongst ourselves AND gives a break every (1.5 h-long) class. The material for this class is also pretty interesting, and I’m happy to have a chance to learn it. My only complaint is that there are regular coding assignments, but it is an applications course, so that’s basically what I signed up for haha.

Overall, although this semester’s already had a lot of ups and downs, this is probably the first break ever that I’m actually looking forward to returning to school. I think this is in large part due to me really enjoying my living situation in Spelman, and taking academics a bit less seriously/stressfully than I used to. I’m seriously so grateful to be living in Spelman this year; I enjoy all the modes of being that it supports. Some other things that I’m looking forward to on campus: the community in IFC, social activities, my improv group (!!!), visiting NYC with Sonia, and getting back to my at-school routines.

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.