Breaking Out of Princeton: Spring Break in NYC


Going to college thousands of miles from home is always both exciting and stressful. However, I found this statement to be especially true during breaks. Often, shorter breaks (like Thanksgiving, fall break and spring break) can seem too short for a trip home to be worthwhile, or even possible. My first year, going home just was not an option for me. Fortunately, Princeton allows many of its students to stay on campus during short breaks. So I never had to worry about access to housing or food during those times. For those who decide to, staying on campus during breaks can be rejuvenating. It is a chance to experience Princeton without the hectic life of being a student, dining hall crowds and (sometimes boring) early morning lectures. It can be a chance to make new connections and catch up on overdue assignments and dining hall dates. That said, for those seeking thrills and excitement, Princeton also offers a number of alternative break plans run by various departments and clubs on campus. These opportunities range from trips to see live Broadway shows or go restaurant hopping in New York City, to free boxing workshops, to class-sponsored trips within the United States or abroad and much more. For my spring break, I spent a week in NYC and it was genuinely one of my best experiences so far as a Princeton student.

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5 students posing for a photo in front of a restaurant
Last day in NYC with the group! 

I was part of a cohort of students who spent the week in NYC learning about immigration to the city through the lens of food. The trip was organized by the PACE Center, which is the department that manages most of the service-related initiatives for the University. During this week, along with a group of five Princeton students and a staff member, I engaged in conversations with community leaders in Brooklyn and the Bronx about the journeys of refugees in NYC and the role that food and the restaurant industry play in their experiences. I was also able to socialize with and befriend other Princeton students, many of whom I had never met before. Moreover, I was able to live in NYC for five days and eat quality New York food… For free!

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Bowl of stew in shallow bowl on table
Our meal from Emma’s Torch, a nonprofit that prepares immigrants to enter the workforce.

I enjoyed the opportunity this Breakout Trip gave me to branch out and learn more about nearby communities and the challenges their residents can face. Princeton is not huge, but it is certainly big and busy enough to make you forget about the outside world if the intentionality to get out of the "bubble" is lacking. Our supervisor, Geralyn Williams, also made sure we learned about the most effective ways to approach service beyond our spring trip. We learned about empowering and contributing to established initiatives put in place by the locals rather than one centered on saviorism. Additionally, this trip provided me with many opportunities to reflect on how I might pursue my dedication to service in a way that truly serves others while respecting their own resourcefulness and commitment. I gained new insights into the worlds of social work, immigration law and human rights, all of which are areas that interest me deeply. I also had the opportunity to engage with social workers and CEOs of nonprofits and social enterprises and learn about their daily responsibilities, their challenges and the impact they have or aspire to. Following these conversations, I always felt deeply inspired.

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Man holding chicken in farm building
Meet Poulette whom I met in an Urban Farm.

When I returned to Princeton, I felt that my sense of purpose had been redefined and sharpened. I felt more confident entering my classes and engaging in my extracurricular activities knowing that what I was learning was going to help prepare me for the life and career I desire. Even during my break time, Princeton accompanied me in my personal journey and it felt incredibly reassuring. In the days following this trip I had a heightened sense of awareness--I felt I was at the right place.


Signing Up for Bridge Year


Bridge Year is often seen as a magical experience where students are able to take a year off to travel the world on Princeton’s dime. That’s how I saw it. I was convinced about the opportunity to learn and grow by being immersed in the culture. Plus, I wanted to take advantage of a free travel opportunity and get out of the confines of New Jersey, especially after feeling senior year burnout. And part of me desperately needed time to figure out more about who I was– Princeton was offering that opportunity. 

For some students, Bridge Year is the ultimate highlight of their Princeton experience. For others, not so much. Despite its glowing reviews, Bridge Year isn’t always sunshine and happy memories, yet those are the memories often communicated. The expansive and fast-paced nature of the program allows students to focus on the highlights. The program is broken into short-term travel (at the beginning, over Winter break, and the final month) which allows you to rapidly immerse yourself in different cultures and learn more about the history of the place you are in. Our group traveled to Indonesia on the shores of Banyuwangi, through the farms of Flores, up to the peak of Dieng, to the waterfalls of Sumba and more. Then for the majority of the program, my group and I lived in Jogja with our own individual homestay families, interned at an NGO, took language classes, attended speaker events or activities put on by the staff members, and took an extracurricular class that was rooted in some aspect of Indonesian culture (mine was silversmithing). At my NGO, I attended different events surrounding children's rights and assisted with research surrounding sex trafficking— a heavy yet important experience. Beyond all of those activities, I was free to explore the city and myself. 

 

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Sunset from atop boat off the coast of Labuan Bajo

Because of the freedom to explore, many students on the trip face identity conflicts. In all fairness, identity conflict is a part of life. Bridge Year’s program design allows students to have time to reflect deeply on themselves, accelerating identity conflict and growth. Without academic rigor and structure, our brains can run free to think critically and deeply about ourselves. With the right support, this can be healthy. 

For me, I struggled with being visibly brown: I am a first-generation Bangladeshi-American and a Muslim. Growing up, my hometown is known to be “accepting, diverse, and liberal,” but lacked a significant South Asian or Muslim population. As one of the few, I learned to compartmentalize the subtle racism and Islamophobia I faced to keep moving forward. 

 

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Poster board about skin color identity

Bridge Year forced me to unpack all of it.  Every day, I was forced to confront my identity because of other people. Instead of compartmentalizing, I had time to think about it. 

At the start of the trip, whenever someone mentioned Islam, my group turned to me. At first, I was happy to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, but it soon hurt to hear their misconceptions about our traditions and beliefs.

As we settled into our long-term homestays, I felt pressure from the rest of the community. Taxi drivers would always question where I came from, to the point where my group and I had a running joke: to answer with random places around the world. At events, locals would often question my identity– “Is she really American?” and only dropped the subject when my white peers spoke up for me. Sometimes, local Indonesians didn’t bother to include me among my peers. I learned to stand in the middle of the group to avoid being cut off at doors and in lines. Other times, people asked if I was the instructor’s daughter, despite us bearing no resemblance besides our skin tone. Further, I was constantly offered whitening soaps and products. Everyone I interacted with had some opinion on my skin, which took away from my agency in how I viewed my heritage and identity. 

Yet these reactions came with perks. I could blend in more easily than my peers, avoiding scams and harassment– as long as I kept my mouth shut. As a Muslim, I felt another degree of connection to homestay families whenever they had a communal prayer. Despite these benefits, I fixated on the negative experiences, as is natural. Eventually, I grew to hate being brown. 

Seeking help never felt obvious. The advising resources provided by Princeton were in a completely different time zone and I didn’t feel like a real Princeton student or someone who could access those resources. In Indonesia, my instructors could not relate to my specific experience as a non-Indonesian woman of color. Instead, they asked me to bring it up to my group mates in order to find the support I needed, placing an undue burden on the other students, who were each struggling in their own ways to navigate our new environment. 

Near the end of my experience, I read a book entitled, “The Good Immigrant.” After hearing other POC narratives surrounding discrimination in a new environment, I finally felt seen and heard. During a group meeting, I used this book and critical race theory via presentation to explain my experience to my peers. Hours later, we received notice that we were being sent home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the rush to leave that followed, neither my peers nor I had time to process our thoughts on race. 

At home, I journaled a lot, especially since I had to quarantine. That summer held major events that helped me heal from the trauma of Bridge Year– America reckoned with race, and Never Have I Ever, one of the few TV shows that centers on a brown girl, debuted its first season on Netflix.

 

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Aneekah and two other students sitting atop a mountain after a hike in Java

After two years, I have come to terms with my experience. It was painful to grapple with my identity,  yet my struggles have prepared me for almost all environments. I have run the gamut of different ways in which I, as a brown girl, will be perceived. Further, I have now intentionally cultivated undying self-respect and love for my skin tone, and by extension, my heritage. I am grateful to have had the experience now, to have reckoned with my race and come to an understanding now, rather than have bottled up the insecurity for the future. My experiences on Bridge Year, even the ugly ones, have allowed me to be a much more mature and confident individual in the spaces  I occupy. I am lucky to have that resolve. 

Not everyone will have the same experiences I had, even if you fit the same description of a brown Muslim girl. But I wish I had heard this dialogue before going on the trip so that I knew I wasn’t the only one experiencing it. As a pre-frosh on Bridge Year, it’s daunting to navigate resources, send emails, or speak up about these issues. Thankfully, more avenues to access and promote these resources are being implemented, spearheaded by former students. During the year, there will be Peer Advisors who can connect participants with the correct resources. During the application process, feel free to reach out to a Bridge Year Ambassador with any questions you may have. 

This experience among other ones is what empowered me to become a Bridge Year Ambassador. In that position, I hope to continue to inform the next generation of students about the complex ways in which different students navigate the experience. I hope that I can make the experience more supportive for future students without discouraging them from considering attending.

In sum, Bridge Year isn’t just a magical experience where you travel to the most beautiful places on earth and end up with a glorious Instagram page. It is a complex, challenging, and meaningful life experience that will shape who you are. That’s what you’re signing up for. 


What You Have to Gain Is Wonderful


By the time I submitted my final college application, I was exhausted. I was excited about  college (and excited about Princeton, once I was admitted and later enrolled), but the thought of  another four years of physics equations and research papers made me apprehensive. I started spending a lot of time on the Novogratz Bridge Year website, looking at photos of smiling participants and reading about a year of trekking and service and living abroad.  

When deciding whether or not I wanted to apply to Princeton’s Novogratz Bridge Year program, one of my major hang-ups was about my high school friends. I adored them, and they were all about to go to college — to choose a major, attend dorm parties and bond with roommates— and I wasn’t sure if I could do something so different from them. It would mean that I graduated a year later from them and that I wouldn’t be able to come home for breaks. At some level, it meant that I wouldn’t be able to relate to them and they wouldn’t be able to relate to me.  

I was so worried about this that I almost didn’t apply to the program in Senegal. When I did, and I was accepted, my excitement was tempered slightly by these fears. I spent the summer before I left buying a bug hut, googling Senegalese music, and trying not to feel left out as my friends picked out their classes. I don’t know if my 18-year-old self would be surprised by this or not, but those fears pretty much all came true. I kept missing the group FaceTimes because I was in a different time zone; I cried when I saw photos of all my friends together at Thanksgiving; I had a hard time connecting with them when I came home the following summer.  

 

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A beach in Senegal

I don’t mean to say that I lost my high school friends — I am still incredibly close with many of  them, and I love now being able to trade stories about our professors and our college friends. In  some ways, my friendships with them are stronger than they ever were. Maybe if I hadn’t gone away, we wouldn’t be friends at all now. But choosing to take a gap year separated me from them  in ways that I still haven’t fully moved past. This separation very likely might have happened  anyway, as we all went to different schools and studied different things. But it felt unique to me,  as perhaps it does to everyone. At the very least, I was the first one to separate, and I didn’t get to  ease into it over the course of the semester or the year. Once I left, I was gone.  

Despite this loss — and it does still feel in many ways like a loss, as grateful as I am for my  continued friendships — I wouldn’t change my decision for the world. Before I left for Senegal I was so focused on what I stood to lose that I had a hard time picturing what I had to gain. That makes sense: what you might lose is real and tangible, while what you might gain is abstract and largely unknown. It wasn’t until I was there that I realized that the choice I had made was worth it.

Now, I wouldn’t trade any of it: picking up my little homestay brother from school, or making  pancakes on top of a mountain for my friend’s birthday, or running along the beach and through  the waves, or drinking cold bissap after finishing some hot ceebujen, or reading in the backseat of long and dusty bus rides, or carving watermelons for Halloween with my homestay family, or  eating beignets and oranges on the side of the road with my friends, or hiking past baobab trees, or returning to hold my godchildren for the first time. I wouldn’t trade a single one of those things.  

 

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Kate making faces with 4 children and adult

I spent that year living a life very different than the one I had grown used to. I worked at an  organization called Empire des Enfants, a shelter for boys who had been living and begging on  the streets, and learned how I could live a life of service even when I wasn’t “doing service.” I  spent my days taking the bus to work and then coming home for lunch before heading off to  language class. On the weekends, I swam to beautiful islands with my group and watched tv with  my little brothers. Slowly, I was able to make new friends and form new communities. They  looked different than the ones I had before, but I began to feel at home in a new place. I promise  you, what you have to gain is wonderful.

 

From Uniform to University


Xander de los Reyes '23

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Xander DeLosReyes '23 with Princeton admit packet

I spent my last six months in the Marine Corps moonlighting as a bartender. I’ll always be grateful for that experience because, at a time when many separating service members experience a culture shock, I was able to make the Marine-to-civilian transition slowly and smoothly. It also taught me how to convert love for camaraderie into love for community, which carried me through the next two-and-a-half years of my civilian life, ultimately placing me into Princeton’s community. Here, I’ve found immense support and infinite resources. The Writing Center has helped me refine my papers, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning has helped me decode Princeton’s syllabi and the support of my residential college (shoutout, Forbes!) has ensured that I make well-informed academic decisions. Because I’m a veteran and a transfer student, I’m currently enrolled in “Everyone’s an Expert." Unlike the traditional first-year writing seminars, this transfer-focused seminar builds on the unconventional backgrounds—academically or experientially—of veterans and transfer students. We’re taught how to build on writing skills acquired from our previous institutions and encouraged to draw on the experiences that make us unique students. Truthfully, it’s my favorite course because I’ve enjoyed interacting with other non-traditional students. Plus, as a prospective politics concentrator preparing for a writing-intensive career, I’m indebted to our instructor Dr. Keith Shaw, director of transfer, veteran, and non-traditional student programs—who also offers guidance and support for non-traditional students. The guidance and feedback he’s provided will have a lasting impact on my writing and academic mindset. Reflecting on all of these positive experiences makes it funny to look back and think about my initial worries. When I was first accepted, imposter syndrome set in. I felt like my admission was an anomaly and that Princeton would immediately overwhelm me. As the semester approached, those feelings of anxiety grew, but—because of Princeton’s useful resources and supportive community—they were quickly put to rest. All in all, Princeton has been an extraordinary community. Despite my initial fears, I now know I’m right where I belong—surrounded by encouragement and support. I’m a part of this community, and you could be, too.

 


Matthew Williams '24

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Matt Williams '24 and his wife

As a Marine Corps veteran and transfer student, I am far removed from the realm of a typical first-year student at Princeton. I am 22 years old and from the great city of Fort Worth, Texas. I received my Princeton acceptance letter as I neared the end of my four-year enlistment in Spring 2020. This news was accompanied by varying emotions: excitement, worries, anxiety and anticipation. Perhaps my most daunting concern was the unknown academic challenges that I would soon endure. Fortunately for veteran and transfer students alike, there are two student-run organizations that have been central in ensuring my smooth transition in an otherwise challenging plane. The Princeton Student Veterans (PSV) and Princeton Transfer Association (PTA) held veteran and transfer-specific events, Q&A sessions and provided additional resources to my incoming cohort. These student-run organizations have proven invaluable as I reflect on my Princeton experience.

My first semester at Princeton University has been an equally challenging and exhilarating experience. I intend to concentrate in politics with an emphasis on political economy. Albeit through Zoom, there remains a thrill when you are studying under some of the world’s most prominent professors. The academic challenges I’ve faced pale in comparison to the resources Princeton offers. In addition to office hours, The McGraw Center is a helpful tool for both traditional and non-traditional students when you need additional help in a class. From the multitude of student clubs to simply chatting with other students after class, I have connected with several of the traditional first-year students despite being a part of the transfer program. I am proud to be a part of the growing student veteran population at Princeton University. Go Tigers!

 

 

 


A Feeling That Can’t Be Put into Words


Service has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. During high school, I participated in a myriad of nonprofit organizations and wanted to continue my volunteering work at Princeton. 

To my surprise, I was immersed in service from the get-go. I spent a week in Philadelphia tackling hunger and homelessness through Princeton’s first-year orientation program, Community Action. I felt empowered and aware of my duty to give back to my community. Moreover, I got to form meaningful bonds with 13 other first-year students. I realized that Princeton’s informal motto, “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity,” is integral to the undergraduate experience. From the Pace Center for Civic Engagement to activist organizations, students can engage in service in many different ways. 

Once classes started, I was looking for more opportunities to engage with service. I participated in the Brooklyn College Awareness Program during fall break. The purpose of the trip was to help low-income students apply to college. I was reminded of my college application process and how much I would have benefited from a program like this. Getting to help others achieve their dreams is a feeling that can’t be put into words.  

I grew so fond of Brooklyn College Awareness that I became a trip leader. From picking the Princeton volunteers to organizing excursions in the city, it was a hectic week, to say the least. However, getting to see the smiles of all the students on the last day made it all worth it. 

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Community Action