Challenges at Princeton


For a moment, I want to pivot away from all the great things I’ve experienced at Princeton (read about all of that here!) and share a little about some of my struggles.

My first year, academically, was a challenge. There were a lot of factors leading into this, whether it was dumb luck, adjusting to college life, or the transition from a small Midwestern public school to Princeton’s level of academic rigor. These challenges didn’t magically resolve themselves overnight. I’d feel like I solved them, only for them to resurface a few days or weeks or months later, always in different situations, but often with similar themes or trends. 

These recurrences, obviously, didn’t make me feel good. Every time I got a subpar grade, wrestled with my course load, or forced myself to go to office hours when it was cold and wintry outside, I didn’t do so with a good feeling. There’s always that question of how to juggle classes and other commitments with your other needs, whether it be physical, social or mental. 

Some lessons that I learned. Firstly, do seek out help. I tried too often, as the stubbornly independent person I am, to tough it out alone and figure things out. But Princeton itself does offer resources such as the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, or class-specific office hours and TAs. In working on my senior thesis, I’ve recently discovered the presence of a maps specialist at the Lewis Science Library, who might be able to help me superimpose maps of New York City overtime to figure out patterns of developing land. To paraphrase Dumbledore, there’s always help at Princeton for those who ask.

Beyond these academic aids, however, sometimes you just have to zoom out and take a larger view. 

Princeton challenges everyone, constantly, and for the most part, that means we are constantly growing - as students, as friends, as people. It can be really easy to be tough on yourself (as a Princeton student, but also as a person reading this blog applying to Princeton). It can be easy to think of one setback as a door permanently closed or to shoulder an immense burden and think it still isn’t heavy enough. But I think one of the biggest lessons I’m still learning at Princeton is to be true and gentle to myself - to believe in that process and allow things to work themselves out. 

The challenges, growing pains and learning opportunities at Princeton are limitless. It’s important to afford yourself that breath of fresh air between each one. 


Poets Should Come Ready to Move/Yell/Play/Discover


"...Writing and performing our way towards a deeper understanding of ourselves as spoken word poets, we will collaboratively work our way towards a final public performance and, hopefully, the tools to better move the crowds we face, which are the tools to change the world one poem at a time."

When I saw the description for this course, Spoken Word Poetics taught by award-winning poet Danez Smith, I just had to apply!

In December 2021, the last month of fall semester, I participated in course selection, a process where students of each grade level take turns signing up for the classes they want to take the following semester. There are lots of classes to choose from, everything from an Introduction to Entrepreneurship to Songwriting; some classes require an application or permission to register, but many (if not most) classes don’t. 

Course selection naturally tends to be more of an emotionally turbulent time for everyone, as people scramble to explore all of Princeton’s courses, narrow down their course lists, and resolve any scheduling conflicts. I try to make the process as fun as possible, though, by exploring my academic curiosities and looking for classes that sounded exciting and engaging. 

One of the topics I wanted to explore academically was creative writing. Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing provides a wide range of classes taught by well-respected writers. Many of these classes require applications. While the Program currently seeks to become more inclusive and supportive of writers of all skill levels, I’d encourage you not to begin hyperventilating because of the word “application,” because the application for most of the intro classes does not ask for any writing samples. 

For some background on my interest in creative writing, I’ve been writing poetry since middle school. I began writing, hilariously enough, because my best friend started playing club volleyball and I could no longer hang out with her as much afterschool. Fun fact: I wrote one of my college essays about the first open mic I performed at! How meta, writing about writing!

That being said, I believe any student can submit a compelling application, especially with the help of resources like the Writing Center. If I didn’t at least try to apply, I wouldn’t be here today telling you about how excited I am to take this course! 

At the end of the day, if you’re interested in creative writing classes at Princeton, don’t let applications scare you! I applied to Spoken Word Poetics because, ironically, I am terrified of performing my poetry in front of other people and actually have them *listen* and *hear* me. 

Regardless, I hope that this class can provide me with the space to begin facing some of that fear, and become more confident in my words. Are there any academic curiosities you’ve always wanted to explore, or fears you’re ready to face? I’d love to know!


This Post Is Not Sponsored By The Writing Center


I still don't know exactly what my concentration will be. When I applied to Princeton, I thought I was going to concentrate in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). However, in the middle of my first semester, I started to have doubts. I began to seriously wonder if SPIA was the right path for me. A semester later and I am more unsure about my concentration than I have ever been. What contributes to my uncertainty is the fact that Princeton offers so many interesting opportunities that I am torn between so many departments, research and funding options. While I am still unsure about what my concentration will be, one thing is certain, I will write. A LOT!

I remember reading somewhere that Princeton is one of the universities that places emphasis on writing. This is one of the reasons why all students are required to produce a senior thesis before they graduate. This is also why all undergraduates are required to take a Writing Seminar, either in the fall or spring semester of their first year. Writing seminars are intended to introduce first-year students to academic writing. There are several seminars that students can rank before they are officially assigned to one. I attended mine, WRI 167/168: Justice Beyond Borders, in the fall. I remember one day, as we were discussing Kant's main claims in "Towards Perpetual Peace", a staff member walked into the room and introduced us to a wonderful resource: The Writing Center.

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Lounge of the Writing Center

Essentially, the Writing Center offers free 50-minute and sometimes 80-minute one-on-one appoinments to students in which consultants help them work on writing assignments, ranging from 3-page essays to 20-page research papers. Consultants are undergraduate students who are trained to provide guidance on writing assignments. Personally, I see the Writing Center as an accountability checker. I schedule my appointments days (even weeks) before the deadline for my essays. My thinking is this: if I have a writing consultation scheduled, then I need to have something written. There are even times when I don't have an essay to receive feedback on. Sometimes I only have rough outlines or just broad ideas. However, scheduling a consultation forces me to set time aside to at least think about my writing assignment and to get someone else’s perspective on my initial ideas.

The consultants that I work with always listen to me and ask questions that help refine my ideas and push them further. When there is really nothing to think about, they propose exercises that encourage reflection on specific parts of my essay. Wherever you are in the writing process, they've got you! That's the beauty of the Writing Center. In fact, the consultations I found most useful were the ones where I didn't even have a draft. It is important to note that while no two consultants are the same, at the end of every appointment, I always feel ready to embark on my next step in the writing process.

I see the Writing Center as a group of students who not only listen to me talk about my ideas, but also help to formulate them into words, and ultimately in a "coherent, sensitively argued and well-written essay" (by the way, these are the comments that one of my teachers made on an essay workshopped by the Writing Center. It really works guys!)

This is just my experince with The Writing Center and while others may have a different take, I can say that it has been a helpful tool for me and it may be helpful to you as well. And who knows, maybe I will be a Writing Consultant by the time you come to Princeton and I will consult your essay!


Far From Home


The last time I was in Haiti was in August 2019, before I moved to Germany to attend boarding school. Since then, either the health situation in the world or the socio-political situation in Haiti has prevented me from visiting my native land. This winter break was no exception. Following the surge of the Omicron variant around the world, which came in addition to the worrying political instability plaguing my country, I had to make the difficult decision to indefinitely postpone my trip to Haiti. After moping for a few days and complaining to my family, I had to take on the arduous but necessary mission of figuring out how I was going to spend my winter vacation in the United States.

One thing was sure, I was going to find someone, somewhere, to host me for the duration of the vacation. For one, Haitians are everywhere! For two, I know people… I think? Anyway, I was going to be fine! Asking family and friends to host me remained the last option on my list. After all, no one wants to be a visitor who abuses their host's hospitality. Four weeks is a lot of hellos, good nights, have you eaten already, when are you going back to Princeton again? Four weeks is a long time under the care of barely known strangers or distant relatives. For the most part, no one will tell you it's time to leave, but there is always an underlying discomfort that intensifies over time. Even when the host's hospitality doesn't seem to waver, after some time, one always ends up feeling uncomfortable. Out of place. Like a burden.

Fortunately, I did not have to burn my brain cells overthinking or interpreting the over-enthusiastic hellos or the not-genuine-enough smiles from any host. Sometime after Thanksgiving, Professor Hakim of the SIFP Office (Scholars Institute Fellows Program) shared an email from Dean Dolan regarding a request for continuous accommodation over the winter break. Essentially, students who could not return home during the holidays had the option of applying for continuous housing in order to be allowed on campus over the break. That was a breakthrough in my mission!

A few days after submitting a request in which I explained my situation, I received a confirmation from Princeton: I had qualified for continuous housing. Yay! After the immediate relief wore off, I felt bittersweet. I was grateful that I had a place to stay where I would be looked after. The testing program would continue throughout the break and food would be provided to me. Yet, despite having everything I needed to make it through, I was also very aware of the needs of the heart. The end of the year is a time most people spend with family and friends; I was staying on my college campus. I did not know how I would feel on Christmas Eve. Alone in my room. Or on New Year's Eve. Part of me was incredibly anxious.

The truth is, I really enjoyed my time on campus over the break. Don't get me wrong, there were some difficult times when I thought about where I could have been and what I could have been doing. However, I was constantly reminded that I had what I needed. I used the time away from distractions to reflect on my semester and my year in general. I realized that caught in the frenetic rhythm of my first semester, I did not spend enough time thinking about how I was doing, my goals or about the ways in which I was reconnecting with friends and family from back home. This downtime was incredibly helpful and rejuvenating. 

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Procter Hall: Graduate College Hall at Princeton University

I also explored the campus and the surrounding areas on my bike. I spent time with the many other international students (and a few domestic students) who were also staying on campus. We had a lot to think about, a lot to share and a lot to laugh about. On January 7th, we had our first snow! The campus was magnificent, shining beneath this thick immaculate white sheet which, when it fell upon the old buildings and the remaining greenery created a magnificent contrast. I fell asleep that day with the windows open, lulled by the sight of the flakes that landed majestically on the grass in the Forbes backyard, on the other side of my room. The next day, the intensified sunlight reflected on the snow woke me up. I got ready right away for a full tour of campus, as I did on my first day at Princeton back in July 2021. Indeed, it was as if I was discovering the campus for the first time. 

After the first snowfall, the campus slowly came back to life. Student-athletes, staff and faculty eased back to work. I started feeling the excitement about the Wintersessions I had signed up for and the winter internship I had secured through Princeton. I will probably write a blog post about them: Designing a Photo Exhibit (documenting the experience of black students attending the first-ever residential summer program at Princeton in 1964) and a discussion on forced migration. I am also very excited for the Spring semester!

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Student taking a selfie in the snow

P.S.: The Spiderman reference in the title was involuntary!


And There Was One - Some Senior Reflections


I’d just gotten home for the holidays this year when the Instagram posts started flooding in from my fellow Class of 22er’s - “Semester 7/8 done! One to go!” etc etc. Which of course wasn’t the first time this had crossed my mind. I’ve had a few late nights this semester thinking back to how it all began, reliving memories of the past three years, and wondering how on earth it could have all happened so quickly. I’m not kidding anyone, least of all myself. I knew from day one that these four years would move by fast.

People like to say at Princeton that the days are long, but the weeks are short. Every day, between the random encounters, the meetups for meals and studying, the trekking around campus from McCosh Hall to Firestone Library to Dillon Gym to Frist for Late Meal; between the plans you make for clubs and classes, and the hours after dinner you didn’t intend to spend playing pool or hanging out in the dining hall - every day you go to bed and think, how could I possibly have done all that in just one day?

Every day happens like that, and then you wake up and - wait a moment - that dinner in Whitman was a week ago? That dance performance was two? It’s been a month since that fall break trip and your fifteen page paper is due in like a week?

Wait a moment - it’s been three years already?

I tried to steel myself very early my first year for these thoughts. I knew the time would go by fast. But knowing only does so much. And I think what has helped me more than anything is trying as hard as I can to stay rooted in the present. To enjoy everything I have today, and to allow that to be all that matters. And when I sit down to think about all the experiences I’ve had, big and small, over the past week, or month, or year, I feel full, if that makes sense. 

I’m heading into my last semester. A couple weeks ago I woke up early one morning to do my last round of course selections for the upcoming semester. And it’s hard not to start thinking of things as the “last.” As a Residential College Adviser, I look at my first-year advisees and can’t help feeling a touch of melancholy at just how much time they have left. 

If any of you are looking at Princeton - heck, if any early action admits are reading this blog - I’m wishing you all the best. These years in college aren’t a cake walk, and sometimes things won’t seem the greatest. But look for and cherish the good moments. They go by fast.


Being Muslim at Princeton: A First-Time Experience


Truthfully, when I came to Princeton, I was not expecting to meet people who looked like me. I expected to be the outsider, other, visually and actually different from the rest. At my high school, that was all I knew. I was the only hijab-wearing Muslim out of over 800 students, and often the only Black person or girl in my advanced math and science courses. 

At my high school, I took the initiative to co-found the Muslim Students Association, or MSA for short. Our first couple years were a struggle to stabilize the group. The MSA never had more than four or five students during any given year. My experience of founding my school’s MSA opened my eyes to the reality of being Muslim at a predominately white institution: that experience is often isolating. But it also taught me the strength provided by community. 

Coming to Princeton, though, was a different story. Yes, I met people from all over the world, from Germany to Canada, and from Kenya to China, but I also met people just like me. I met people from California, my home state, and people from the Yoruba tribe, my tribe. Most meaningfully, I met people from my faith, Islam. A. WHOLE. GROUP. OF. THEM.

Let me set the scene for you: around noon, I walked into the gorgeous Murray-Dodge Hall and was greeted by Muslim peers. There was not just one type of “Muslim.” There were hijab-wearing Muslims and non-hijab-wearing ones, there were Muslims from a wide variety of American states and various countries across the world. THERE WERE PEOPLE MY AGE! STUDENTS! Students that I could talk to about the Quran, or about being a neuroscience concentrator, about hadith or about Hoagie Haven.

This was huge for me, considering I had an inconsistent Muslim community back home that mainly consisted of older women and their young children. Performing Jummah salat, an Islamic congregational prayer held every Friday, had become an action I did on autopilot, without really connecting with those around me. Going to Jummah for the first time at Princeton, though, thoroughly altered my notion of what Muslim representation can look like on an academic campus: being Muslim at a predominately white institution did not have to feel isolating, in fact, it could feel quite enriching and enjoyable.

Though Princeton's MSA has given me a community of people who I can relate to on a religious level, I would be remiss if I did not address the concept of homogeneity. While I do not think that living and staying solely in a community that looks entirely like you is a rewarding way to go through life, I think that there is much that can be gained from finding a small group of people with shared identities inside of a larger community that is diverse. These sort of small groups provide room for relatability without the echo chambers common in complete homogeneity. They provide a respite from day-to-day experiences without becoming a place that criticizes you for differences. 

Princeton’s MSA has shown me that same strength I first discovered, multiplied. Though it is still growing and expanding, the Princeton MSA has further exemplified how tightly a community can come together, especially after sorrowful events like the passing of Imam Sohaib.  I am looking forward to continuing my experience of Religious Life at Princeton, and I encourage you to explore the various religious groups on campus.


First-Year Takes on Princeton, Loses 1-0


When I initially began to reflect on my first semester here at Princeton, I could only see it as a zero-sum game, wherein Princeton bested me time and time again, despite my best efforts to maintain good grades, make friends and get enough sleep. But the inherent nature of reflection is not zero-sum, in fact, it is only through reflection that I’ve arrived at the person I am today, grasping at and combining all of the lessons I’ve learned throughout the years. Now that finals season has begun to wind down and the temperature has dropped suspiciously low, I am here to share with you three lessons I’ve learned from my first semester at Princeton!

Resilience Over Perfection

This has been a big one for me. As what you would call a “high achiever” (read: perfectionist) in high school, I expected that if I just sat down and studied, I’d get an ‘A’ in all or most of my classes. I quickly realized that that is not how academics works here at Princeton! Here, someone can study for hours and hours and still feel unsure walking into an exam. I do not say this to scare you, oh young one, but to prepare you. After taking my first semester of classes—an intro neuroscience class, an intro computer science class, a painting class and my first-year writing seminar—I have learned to value my own resilience over any unachievable notion of perfection. It is only from trying different study techniques and taking advantage of different class resources such as office hours that I’ve begun to figure out what I need to thrive academically. If I don’t get the grade I want, that just means I need to try something new next time!

The Spontaneous Yes is Rarely a Bad Choice

I know I’m going out on a limb here, telling you that your fingers do not have to be perpetually glued to a pencil or computer, but alas it is true! There are so many INCREDIBLE experiences I’ve had here at Princeton, all because I was willing to say “yes”! From learning how to ice skate at UPenn’s ice rink to performing in a Halloween parade, there are tons of opportunities (most of them free) for students to try new things, meet new people and have fun. 

Rest is Powerful

Read that one more time. Though it is easy to fall into a habit of working all the time and always being “busy,” I am slowly leaning into the power of saying no and taking some time for myself. Currently, my favorite self-care activities are napping, journaling and crocheting. I know I just told you to say “yes!” to more things, so this next lesson seems counterintuitive, but it’s actually not. My intentional “no’s” gave me the space to recharge and engage in self-care, so that when I did say “yes!” I was able to fully engage with whatever new experience I was having.  Saying yes to everything is not sustainable, and saying no to everything is a waste of all the cool opportunities Princeton has to offer; developing a good balance of yes’s and no’s is what has allowed me to take advantage of cool opportunities while staying on top of academics and relationship building. It is the key to avoiding burnout.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my reflections on my first semester at Princeton. What has this past semester been like for you?


7 Princeton Traditions in my First On-Campus Semester


I studied remotely for my first year, so my sophomore fall semester was my first time living on campus. One of the best parts of being in person is being able to partake in Princeton's numerous traditions that aim to build community in the Orange Bubble, so here are seven of my favorites that I've had the chance to experience:

1. Pre-Rade

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Student cheerleaders in orange and black at the Pre-rade

The Pre-rade is a parade in which an incoming class is officially welcomed to Princeton by running through Fitzrandolph gates. Alumni, upperclassmen and the student band cheer for you as you sprint through the black iron gates in front of Nassau Hall. The Class of 2024 didn't have a Pre-rade last year due to the pandemic, so ours was held this year just before the Class of 2025 Pre-rade. Students never walk through Fitzrandolph gates again until commencement, because legend has it you won't graduate in four years if you do! I don't know if I believe this, but I'm not going to be the one to find out.

2. Chalkboards

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chalkboard with equations for Mechanics of Solids

I have yet to see a single dry-erase whiteboard on the Princeton campus. Instead, every classroom or office I've seen has a traditional black chalkboard. I'm not entirely sure what the logic is behind this. You're forced to write more slowly on a chalkboard, I've found, so maybe this forces professors to slow down when teaching and helps students pinpoint mistakes in their reasoning when working through equations. Whatever the purpose, writing on a chalkboard feels old-fashioned and classic in a way that reminds me of Einstein working at Princeton (even when I'm only writing out a homework problem instead of refining the theories of quantum physics).

3. Forbes Garden and Sunday Brunch

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harvested cherry tomatoes in pots from the Forbes garden

My residential college, Forbes, is home to both the Princeton Garden Project, where student garden managers organize workdays where students can help weed and harvest, and to their famous weekly Sunday brunch, complete with a chocolate fountain. I enjoyed checking out the garden this semester and seeing the vegetables and fruits they were growing, and the Sunday brunch never failed to impress. 

4. Bonfire

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Harvard and Yale-decorated wooden crates and house on Cannon Green

When the Princeton football team defeats both Harvard and Yale in the same season, the tradition is to host a celebratory bonfire on Cannon Green. Each class year had a specified time throughout the day when they could place crates on the structure to be burned, and in the evening students cheered as the Yale and Harvard-decorated structure went up in flames.

5. Outdoor Action

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students on a hike at the Mountain Lakes Preserve

Outdoor Action is best-known for organizing the pre-orientation camping trip for first years, but they also offer hikes and other sporting activities to all students throughout the year. On "OA Day" Saturday this semester, I decided to join a hike at the Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve (about a mile off campus). The scenery was lovely and I was able to meet some new people.

6. Newspapers

The Daily Princetonian is always available online, but I really enjoy reading a copy of the physical newspaper. Having a print copy allows me to see stories that wouldn't otherwise catch my eye online, and it's nice to get a break from the screen. Each Friday afternoon copies of the Daily Princetonian and the Nassau Weekly, the literary magazine, are distributed to the residential colleges. I always look forward to picking up my copies and catching up with news and discussion of the Orange Bubble at the end of the week.

7. Applause after the final lecture

At the conclusion of the final lecture on the last day of classes, the students erupt into a hearty round of applause in gratitude for all the knowledge the professor has imparted throughout the semester. This occurred in a way on Zoom last year in the form of "thank you!" messages and "clapping hands" emojis flooding the chat, but it was so much more meaningful in person.

These were the Princeton traditions I got to experience this fall, and I'm looking forward to what sophomore spring will bring!


Accommodation and Advocation


Having been recently diagnosed with a disability, ulcerative colitis, one of the main fears I had living on campus was the accommodation system. I had only gone through the process during virtual learning, so witnessing how my illness would affect me on campus was a bit scary. I feared that I would not be getting the accommodations I needed. Considering the cyclical nature of my illness, I feared that the Office of Disability Services would not see my accommodations as necessary. Although I got most of my accommodations, my need for a private bathroom was not met, yet I’ve managed without it for now. 

The fact that I didn’t have certain accommodations that I felt were necessary made me worried about how accessible the campus would be. But, I find that generally, the staff and members of the University are quite understanding of disabilities. For one, my professors have been incredibly helpful in honoring my accommodations. Additionally, the Office of Disability Services is generally very responsive and helpful to meet the varying needs of students with accommodations. Despite the fact that I moved hundreds of miles away from home, with access to my needs more limited, I still flourish. Really, accommodations is about finding out how to work within a system, even if the resources you need are all not there. 

 

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Izabela Konopka sitting on a tree trunk

One of the biggest pieces of advice I would give to incoming first-year students is to make sure your accommodations prepare for the worst case scenario, rather than your present condition. College is a large transition. You can not predict its effect on your disability. Additionally, as long as you have the proper documentation and good reasoning, you should be able to get those accommodations. Another piece of advice I would give is to not be afraid to advocate for yourself. There are many staff who help you advocate for what you need to succeed at Princeton, like our Residential College Staff. Reaching out to them can be instrumental in ensuring you get the resources you need, and knowing that persistence is key. 

Princeton has helped me advocate for myself more, intertwining with my interest in politics. Princeton gives a plethora of resources for those with varying disabilities — you just need to take advantage of those resources.


Reflections on Bonfires


Members of Princeton’s Class of 2022 have had an up-and-down, unconventional time during these past four years. But I count myself very lucky to have experienced not just one, but two, of Princeton’s most unpredictable and unforgettable traditions: the bonfire, which happens only if our football team defeats both Harvard and Yale in one season.

In the late fall of 2018, and again just this month, all of campus gathered in front of Morrison Hall for a bonfire that reached high into the night sky. 

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Illuminated Morrison Hall with Princeton class year banners hung on the balcony

This year, I found myself staring at the high, bare branches of a particular tree, lit brightly against the dark sky by the orange glow of the bonfire. I remembered looking at the same tree three years ago as a first-year. Now, in the same place and warmed by that same heat, I didn’t even have to close my eyes to imagine that it was 2018, that the majority of my time at Princeton still stretched ahead of me. 

The crowd, rowdy and calling for the flames before the fire had begun, seemed to quiet as the bonfire crackled, its sparks catching high into the wind. On one side of the green, the Greek pillars of Whig and Clio were lit orange - all other light came from the growing fire, illuminating our faces and protecting us from the November chill. 

Sustained on wood pallets assembled and painted by each class the same afternoon, the flames stretched as tall as the trees, as if they were trying to ring the bell atop Nassau Hall. The crowd cheered as wooden pallets cracked and fell as they were consumed. Within our orange bubble, everything touched by night was lit bright as day.

The fire remained strong for more than an hour before it began to diminish. I felt that I had been there only a minute since it first began.  

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Aerial view of the bonfire on campus