Nassau Hall in the fall

I went out to brunch with two of my freshman-year roommates a few days ago. It had been a long time since I had seen one of them—she had studied abroad during the fall, and I had studied abroad during the spring, so I hadn’t seen her for almost two years. We talked about our time abroad, our summers and our families. We reflected on stories from freshman year and told funny stories about this fall.

At one point, I was telling them about how the recent renovations in Firestone Library had almost caused a disaster for me. As they knew well from freshman year, I have always had a terrible sense of navigation and have gotten lost many times in the five stories of Princeton’s main library. Combine this with renovations and consider the fact that when I’m studying, I tend to ignore any distraction (including the need to use the bathroom!)... and you have certain disaster. I was telling them—theatrically—about how I had recently been ignoring the need to use the bathroom until I finished a long essay that I was working on, and then ran to where the bathroom had been only to find that it no longer existed, and spent the next five minutes in quiet desperation trying to find the new location.

My old roommate laughed and said, “You know, that could be a good title for a book about your time at Princeton: ‘Running through Firestone.’”

We laughed, and talked about how many times we’ve felt this way at Princeton—how many times we’ve felt that we’re rushing last-minute to submit an assignment, how we’re trying to balance too many things at once, how we’re racing from place to place with no time to think. We talked about how, paradoxically, the Princeton overload forces you to simplify, and that for us, this was the first time in our lives that we couldn’t do everything anymore. We couldn’t be involved in three sports and be editors of two magazines and leaders of five student organizations and straight A students like we could in high school. For the first time in our lives, we had pushed ourselves beyond our limitations—a painful experience, but one that allows you to recognize what is most important to you, to prioritize and to focus on the things that matter.

Before coming to Princeton, I had often heard, “Be ready for the fact that you won’t be the smartest kid anymore.” I was ready for that; that didn’t bother me. What bothered me was not that I wasn’t able to do more than my classmates; what bothered me was that I could no longer do everything that I wanted to do. I was overwhelmed by that feeling. This is an experience that I believe every college student will go through at some point or another, more or less acutely. It is a painful experience; like any loss, there are the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. At first, it’s hard not to feel like a failure.

But it’s also liberating.

When you come to the other side, you find that your world is focused. Everything that you do has meaning to you, and you come to cherish it. I reflected on this change as I talked with my former roommates at that brunch. I could see it in them; there was a sense of calmness about them, a sense of meaning and purpose. We were all doing fewer things, but we were focused on what mattered to us.

I thought back to the hardest moments of freshman year—the moments when we felt as if the world were ending because of our terrible midterms grades, the times when we cried because we couldn’t make a team, the days we asked each other whether we could do this—and compared these moments to the conversation we were having about our futures now. One had accepted an offer at Goldman Sachs; the other was still in the process of interviewing for an engineering job at Universal Studios (which she later got!). There was a sense of assurance, a sense of belief in ourselves and in what we could do. 

Princeton will show you that you cannot do everything, but it will also show you how strong you are and will help you understand what matters most to you. 

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