Column | Feb. 12

The basic necessities

Over intersession, I spent three days in the living room of a cozy barn house on a retreat with the Princeton’s Women’s Mentorship Program. Sixteen Princeton women got on a bus to Chauncey Conference Center ten minutes away from the University, with the purpose of going outside the Orange Bubble and discussing and reflecting on issues important to us. The leadership team of the Women’s Mentorship Program noted that the goal of the intercession retreat “was to create a safe space for women to reflect upon their time at Princeton thus far and development as women leaders.” Tara Woodard-Lehman, the Presbyterian chaplain, facilitated the discussions and activities, creating a feeling of camaraderie among the women, sitting in a circle on the floor.

But the retreat was not limited to a closed discussion: outside speakers came in and spoke to us about issues such as mindful eating, and the dangers of “effortless perfection.” We were made to understand the basic necessities that we had begun to neglect due to the stresses of school and other activities. Dr. Robin Boudette from the University Health Center spoke to us about mindful eating, beginning by asking us survey questions such as “Do you eat out of habit or choice?” and “Do you eat for reasons other than nutrition?” My own answers to the survey surprised me; I realized that I had been pushing aside the basic necessities that my body required, attending instead to the pressing matters of the day. Many of us reported eating food mindlessly, whether it was forcing down a granola bar or yogurt on the way to class. We hurriedly finish lunch while completing our class readings. And when we focus so much on getting through the grind of everyday life, we sacrifice the little things that are important to our health, like mindful eating. We fail to acknowledge the fact that meeting the needs of our bodies and keeping ourselves healthy is just as important as maintaining our grades or extracurricular responsibilities. These little things are something I feel everyone on campus should keep in mind.

Students at Princeton seem to put on an air of being effortlessly perfect, in looks, grades, and social activities. Dr. Alexis Andres, another retreat presenter and the Butler College Director of Student Life, told us about a student who went so far as to hide in the library to study, so his roommate wouldn’t see him studying. The danger comes when everyone pretends to be perfect, that the act becomes too real, and students begin to believe that they are inferior, when they themselves are each contributors to the problem. At the retreat, we sat in a circle, shared our stories and vulnerabilities, and healed the bruises to our self-esteem that the creeping pestilence of effortless perfection had caused. My takeaway from the retreat — and what I want to share with the rest of the Princeton community — is to realize that nobody’s life is as perfect as it may seem. When we sat in a circle and shared our stories, we learned that everyone experienced difficulties and, that behind the perfectly constructed façade of a polished Princeton student, there is a fellow human being struggling with all the struggles that come with growing up.

The first time we introduced ourselves on this trip we also told the group why we chose to attend. The reason that consistently came up was reflection. This experience was an opportunity to take a break from the rushed life at Princeton during the semester, and to think about each other not as competitors, but as friends and mentors. As Carolyn Yang, copresident of the Women’s Mentorship Program said, “There is something extraordinarily powerful about women coming together and bonding over self-discovery and shared experiences outside of their immediate friend circles and campus affiliations.” And I agree. It was an experience that allowed me to empathize and share stories with a circle of women, and reminded me of basic necessities that many Princeton students, too caught up in getting ahead, forget.

Katherine Zhao is a freshman from East Brunswick, N.J. She can be reached at kz2@princeton.edu.

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