Column | Dec. 5

The ideal Princetonian

Aaron: Before entering Princeton, I held an obscure image of what I believed to be the “ideal University student.” I imagined that once I arrived, I would be expected to participate unquestioningly in a social and academic community to which I was not accustomed. Some part of me imagined that to be a good representative of the school, I would need to repress my racial and economic identity. Initially, this possibility didn’t concern me because I suspected that my identity as an African-American from a lower middle class household wouldn’t matter as much as the more “important” qualities (virtue, moral sensibility, etc.) that would allow me to be a well-educated and useful member of society. As time passed, I began to realize that for many people, embracing one’s social identifiers was just as important as fostering a love for humanitarianism. The way I self-identified as a student and human being gradually transformed while the vision I had of the “perfect” Princetonian dissolved into something else entirely.

Bennett: I hadn’t considered applying to any Ivy League school until my dad suggested Princeton after hearing about its financial aid program. I probably wouldn’t have applied without his prodding, since I, like Aaron, just didn’t consider myself “Ivy material.” I wanted to go to a small, quirky school, one where the qualities which defined the student body were deeper and more emblematic of the liberal arts than the racial, economic and, yes, familial connections which stereotypically defined Princeton and its peer institutions. Ironically, it was largely because these smaller schools tend to be quite expensive and unable to provide financial assistance that I ended up, nearly by accident, at Princeton.

Aaron: After I learned that a scholarship organization had given me a generous financial aid package to attend Princeton, the news spread at my high school. Statistically, the match was unlikely. I am a Detroit-raised, African-American male who grew up in a single mother household. It was not uncommon for adults (usually of color) to commend my “defying the odds” tale. Among my friends and teachers, my race never came up as the reason for my academic success, and I didn’t think it defined my experiences as a human being. My high school had once paid for me to attend a national diversity conference in tenth grade, an opportunity that allowed me to acquire an appreciation for multiculturalism. However, I tended to ignore my own racial identity in the process of becoming a more cosmopolitan person.

Bennett: I discovered over summer break that many suburban Coloradans can’t imagine one of their own going to Princeton. Whether the perceived divide be geographical, economic or based on intelligence or familial connection, people I meet back home will take my Princeton gear as indication that I am a visiting tourist. So, though my white, two-parent, suburban upbringing made the statistics on my acceptance somewhat less unusual than Aaron’s, there was still a sense that I’d beaten the odds by being accepted.

I feared I would have to redefine myself in the new world Princeton represented. Since I could not expect to be defined as an achiever (as I had been in high school) among so many savvy, confident and accomplished students, I expected a single characteristic — perhaps “outdoorsy,” given my Colorado upbringing — to define my niche on campus. But rather than quash the intellectual identity that I so prized, being among so many high-achieving Princetonians allowed me to discover which particular aspects of my intellect were important to me and foster them in different aspects of my Princeton experience. The opportunity to explore my introspection through the ‘Prince,’ my craziness through the band and my scientific passion through ISC allowed me to discover divergent aspects of myself while learning from the diverse personalities I met in these communities.

Aaron: I think recognizing the diversity of Princeton’s student-led cultural organizations was the first indication that I had ignored the importance of my racial identity for much of my life. After speaking with two members of the Black Men’s Awareness Group, I was surprised that I had expected these students to be solely concerned with their academic success. Here were two examples of young black Princeton men who were engaged in dialogues about their race. These were the “ideal” Princeton students: socially and culturally conscious individuals who also valued their academic success. In high school, I had never bothered to join the black awareness club because I thought it didn’t matter as much as getting into a good college. Now I attend school with some of the most passionate students in the country. To be a Princeton student is not to mold oneself around an abstract vision or reputation. Instead, it is to recognize one’s whole self and devote that person to the improvement of others.

Bennett: Done properly, the essays we write for college applications force significant introspection and can cause all manner of personal revelations, but the materials we submit to the admissions office are just the beginning. If we can resist the temptation to mold ourselves into an abstract “ideal Princeton student,” we can create our own incarnation of such a student by presenting our unique passions and experiences to our peers and allowing theirs to shape us, not into a specific ideal, but into a unique and confident person.

Bennett McIntosh is a sophomore from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at bam2@princeton.edu. Aaron Robertson is a freshman from Detroit, Mich. He can be reached at aaroncr@princeton.edu.

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