Column | Oct. 22

Getting help with fitting in

When you join an eating club (if you join an eating club), a weird thing happens: You become the baby again. Though you’re basically halfway though your undergraduate career — if you keep churning smoothly through the system like the rule-abider you are — and a legal adult, you suddenly find yourself infantilized. The older members beam at you and tell you how to bus your plate. When you show up for meals alone, you feel intimidated, awkward. You wander wide-eyed through unfamiliar halls, feeling once more that overwhelming newness you haven’t felt since freshman fall.

Aaron Applbaum ’14 recently wrote about his wish for more cohesion among the student body, and I agree with him, but I would like to emphasize a different negative effect of the eating-club-induced bifurcation between upper- and underclassmen. He is right to worry about lost opportunities for friendship and growth. I think, also, that this separation between younger and older students robs us of a chance to help each other.

I think we all remember how scary Princeton can be when you don’t know what on earth is going on. This is a school of strange lingo and unspoken rules. From “proxes” to passes, to the twin McCoshes, to what it means to be “picked up” or “hosed,” feeling comfortable here is as much about speaking the language as it is about figuring out where you “fit.” The other day, a friend of mine fumed about the way a freshman had asked her for a pass. She and I, as freshmen, had been terrified into simpering timidity by socially powerful upperclassmen because we were susceptible to social pressure and easily swayed by group cohesion. Admittedly, this freshman had been relatively rude, but how could he possibly have known better?

My understanding of how to fit into this campus was formed both because and in spite of the sorority I belonged to for a year-and-a-half. I joined as a freshman because I was totally confused by Princeton and rushing was the easiest way to work my way into a campus social scene I barely even knew existed, let alone understood. The girls I met during rush were friendly, tall and blonde, a lot of them were English majors, and I thought I saw some incarnation of what I’d like to be in them. It was shallow, but I was sold. Though I eventually turned out not to be an English major and definitely not to be a sorority girl, I never could have evolved past who I was then, and what I understood Princeton to be, had I not had this community in the first place. Given the circumstances, it was the best I could do.

I’m pretty against Greek life in general these days, but I can’t fault anyone for wishing for this kind of network to decipher the complexities of the first months and years here. It’s true that there are a variety of ways for underclassmen to find this kind of guidance within the older echelons of this campus community, but these are highly specific, often aimed at a certain demographic and mainly academic. I don’t know if they work or not. I know the peer adviser I had freshman year (was I supposed to have one sophomore year, too?) was unhelpful — and besides, I knew what I wanted to study. What I needed were upperclassman connections I could ask for more than just a pass.

I don’t have an exact solution. I do know that efforts last spring to make me feel at home in my eating club worked: I love it there now. This fall, watching freshmen — my younger sister among them — adjust to this campus makes me wonder whether us upperclassmen could do something like this, though I’m not exactly sure what it would be, for the actual new kids on the block, the real babies. Last month, as my newsfeed filled with pictures of newly Greek sophomores hugging smiling juniors, all in their letters, I felt something like envy underneath my scorn. I wanted that: to get to know the people the dining halls I’m never in and tell them that if they mix Sriracha with Fines Herbes Dressing it’s actually delicious. I’d like to let the underclassmen cramming in my old study room in on the secret that the walls are thinner than they realize, so they shouldn’t sing along to their 2 a.m. pump-up song, and to remind whomever’s in my old room in Yoseloff that everyone can see what they’re up to from the courtyard. Well, everyone who’s down there, at least. Which isn’t me, anymore.

Susannah Sharpless is a religion major from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at ssharple@princeton.edu.

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