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Confronting Loneliness and Finding Belonging While Forging a New Path, from a First-gen Transfer Student


As a first-generation college student, my acceptance to Princeton University came with a whirlwind of emotion. Despite being overjoyed with the news that Princeton was interested in what I had to offer, the reality of entering into an elite institution soon settled on me. Due to my lower socioeconomic status upbringing, fears crept into my thoughts about how I would relate to my peers as a matured, nontraditional student. A sense of loneliness peaked its ugly head as it seemed that no one would understand how I felt. The double-edged sword of my new privilege made it harder for me to connect with my family origins.

 

Upon entering Princeton’s halls, I was immediately welcomed by the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP). I gained new knowledge, improved my analytical capabilities, and formed promising friendships with other FLI students through my participation in the summer FSI program. SIFP adequately prepared me for Princeton’s rigorous academic environment. 

 

It was initially uncomfortable for me to be a part of an elite institution because I did not have the guidance and cultural capital to handle such a complex environment. As a result of SIFP’s efforts, I have felt that I belong–something I had always hoped for before I transferred to Princeton University. The advocacy for FLI students on campus empowered me to express myself and have my voice heard. I received invaluable guidance and mentorship from this program at a crucial time in my life. 

 

Having received so much support from my community, I now mentor peers as a way of giving back. Additionally, I have dedicated my Junior Paper, part of Princeton’s rigorous research curriculum for undergraduates, to researching and discovering the impacts of educational policies on the sense of belonging within the FLI community and the effectiveness of programs such as SIFP.

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Woman stand in front of banner reading "FLI IS FLY," in front of stone building with two tiger sculptures


First-gen Student and Local Politician, a Princeton Transfer Story


I am a first generation college student that was raised by a single mother in a low income household, so I never imagined that transferring to Princeton from my community college could even be a remote possibility for me. I learned of my admission to Princeton on the same day that I was named as one of the recipients of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, so my life changed in the span of just a few hours. I remember standing in front of the medallion on the walkway of the courtyard leading to Nassau Hall the next day, feeling a profound sense of gratitude and humility; and a renewed faith that anything is possible with hard work and determination.


I’ve long been fascinated by how America’s institutions and political processes can be vehicles for solving social problems and building a fairer and more just society, so I enrolled in a few political science classes at my local community college during the pandemic to learn more. When I decided to transfer to a four year university, Princeton was on my radar because of its politics department. With its interdisciplinary liberal arts curriculum and its emphasis on service learning, I felt that continuing my education at Princeton would allow me to pursue my interest in political science and public policy and help me apply what I learn in the real world, including in my own community as a public servant.


While the academics here are intense and there can be initial challenges making the transition to Princeton, the transfer community here makes even the toughest days worth it. Every transfer student has something about them that sets them apart from the rest of the undergraduate population at Princeton. I’ve learned so much from my peers and made friends in our tight-knit transfer community that will last a lifetime. The highlight of my day is having a meal with friends or having long and deep discussions (and sometimes debates) about anything from philosophy, or current events, to the flavor of the cauliflower they’re serving in the dining hall.


During my first semester at Princeton, I was running for city council in my hometown, which is about twenty minutes away from Princeton. During the campaign, my friends from the transfer community helped me canvas door to door in the lead up to the election; and since being elected, they're still there for me when the going gets tough. Along with our beloved Dr. Keith Shaw and Dr. Jordan Reed (Director and Associate Director of Transfer, Veteran, and Non-traditional Student Programs, respectively) the transfer community here at Princeton is here for you when it counts. They enriched my life and made my transition to Princeton successful.

 

Being a transfer student at Princeton is a journey that can take you places you never thought were possible. Every time I walk the campus and gaze at its Gothic architecture, check out a book in Firestone Library, or sit in a lecture hall where Michelle Obama and Sonia Sotomayor once sat, I’m thankful that I applied to Princeton. Believe in yourself and how far you can go because there’s a place for you here too. 

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seven people stand on suburban street corner, center person holds campaign sign

 

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four people pose for a selfie on the field at Princeton Football game

Traversing the Orange Bubble


Navigating your way around campus can be intimidating during a visit or just after move-in, but after several weeks, you'll likely find yourself realizing that the campus is actually quite compact. Traversing the Orange Bubble for your various classes throughout the day is quite doable on foot or on bike, which is why very few students have cars on campus (that, combined with the lack of practically any place to park one). Additionally, Princeton's buildings are becoming increasingly accessible. For instance, Naomi Hess '22 has a wonderful blog on the recent renovations to Nassau Hall that allowed her to be the first person using a wheelchair to enter the building without assistance. In short, getting around campus without a car or shuttle is easy, and the impromptu conversations that occur while entering, leaving and traveling between campus buildings are an unsung but vital part of the Princeton experience. 

For example, after working on a paper or problem set for several hours, I might summarize verbally what I've been doing to a friend I pass on my way out of the E-Quad or library. The simple act of condensing the main points of my work can be very helpful in synthesizing and organizing the material in my mind. Other times, the walks between classes provide an opportunity to catch up with friends when we don't have the time to organize a formal meet-up or get-together. Even though we might not have the time for a concert or event together, we can always chat as we walk from class to class. I really appreciate the moments with friends as I get around campus, as they've been the start of both great ideas and friendships.

Campus is very self-contained, but there may be times when you need something from a destination farther away. For those moments, you can take the Tiger Transit shuttle bus. This bus is free and drives around campus daily, and on the weekends it follows the Weekend Shopper route. This route proceeds down Route 1 to stop at the various shopping centers that include a Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Staples, Home Depot and other stores. I've taken the Weekend Shopper to buy groceries, and my friends have taken it to buy supplies for their art classes. 

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Weekend shopper bus approaching in parking lot of shopping center

Weather permitting, it's also possible to increase your mobility on a bike. Many students have bikes on campus, because they make it possible to get from New South to the E-Quad, for instance, when you only have a 10-minute change-over between classes. There is also a biking route down Alexander Street and Canal Pointe Boulevard that you can take to reach the shopping centers previously mentioned. When it's nice outside, I like taking a bike ride along that route to get to the Whole Foods to buy groceries. Most students store their bikes outside on the numerous bike racks outside the dorms. I cover mine with a plastic tarp when it rains. It looks a little ridiculous, but it does help prevent rusting!

 

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bicycle under gray plastic tarp

Getting around campus and town is one of the most enjoyable parts of my daily routine, and I never fail to appreciate both the buildings and the friends around me as I get from place to place. Furthermore, campus is becoming increasingly accessible to everyone, which you can find out more about from the AccessAbility Center. Additionally Parking and Transportation Services also provides information on accessible pathways and entrances on campus.  In summary, traversing the Orange Bubble is a simple everyday treat.


ASL and Deaf Studies at Princeton


Princeton has taken significant efforts to expand its American Sign Language (ASL) offerings in recent years. ASL was first offered for credit in 2018 through the Program in Linguistics. Beginning in spring 2021, ASL counts towards the fulfillment of the language requirement. I hope the expansion of the ASL program shows the importance of ASL and encourages more students to take the language.

I first learned ASL when I took LIN 205: A Survey of American Sign Language in the fall. This class is for students who do not know ASL and serves as an introduction to the language. It was really wonderful to learn ASL from faculty member Noah Buchholz, who is Deaf and a native speaker of ASL. Now, I can have basic conversations in ASL. Many students in the class had never been exposed to ASL before, but now we all can recognize introductory vocabulary and we understand more about grammar and syntax. I’m also pretty positive that LIN205 was one of the first classes for most students that directly discussed Deafness and disability, and I think students really benefited from learning about these topics.

Now, I am in LIN215: American Deaf Culture, which is being taught for the first time this semester. While Professor Buchholz teaches this class in ASL, students do not need to have any knowledge of the language. Instead, this class is about Deaf culture, as the name suggests, which encompasses history, civil rights, literature and more. It’s so exciting to have a class dedicated to Deaf studies in a way that contextualizes the Deaf experience. I’m looking forward to learning more about Deafness in the past and present.

For years, ASL has been one of the fastest-growing languages taught on college campus today. Additionally, people with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world, which makes it even more essential that Princeton students with and without disabilities learn more how disability impacts the world around them. In the future, I hope that Princeton offers even more classes about ASL, Deaf studies, and disability studies.


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.


Nassau Hall and Advocating for Accessibility


I’ve written previously about my experience as a student with a disability at Princeton. While it has its challenges, overall I’ve felt very welcome on this campus. I’m happy to report back, almost two years later, about the ways in which Princeton has become more accessible throughout my time here. It’s taken a good amount of student advocacy to reach this point, but with every student that raises a concern or a hope for the future, the likelihood of positive change increases.

This past August, I became the first person in a wheelchair to enter Nassau Hall without assistance, as documented by The Daily Princetonian. A multi-year project to create a new entrance and install an elevator inside the historic center of campus administration was finally completed. It was incredible to see the inside of the building, including the Faculty Room, where the Board of Trustees meets, and the Memorial Room, which features the names of all alumni who died in every war dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Fun fact: Nassau Hall briefly served as the capital of the United States in 1783 when the Continental Congress met inside of it! I’m so glad that this important building is accessible at last, and it shows that Princeton is listening to students with access needs like myself.

I’m hopeful that the Nassau Hall renovation is only the start of changes to campus infrastructure. There are many groups on campus focused on improving access and inclusion. For example, I’m a member of the Disability Collective, a club for students with disabilities, it’s been incredible to bond with other students who have similar experiences in a world built for people without disabilities. I also co-chair the Disability Task Force within the Undergraduate Student Government. We’ve been working on several initiatives, such as adding more information about disability services into first-year orientation and collaborating with the eating clubs on accessibility training. In addition, I’m a student fellow for the AccessAbility Center, where I plan programs like an annual celebration of International Day of People with Disabilities and stress relief around midterms and finals with therapy dogs and massages. In my last year on campus, I plan on continuing all of these efforts to improve accessibility, so that the next generation of students with disabilities can feel even more included and supported.


The Value of Self Discovery


Sophomore year has been one of personal and intellectual growth. With the help of the Office of Disability Services, I learned that I have generalized anxiety and it became a goal of mine, this year, to truly get to know myself.

Looking back to high school, my only goal was getting good grades, regardless of what mental strife I went through to get there. Through my time at Princeton, I learned that if you come to campus expecting perfection, you will be humbled very quickly. You’ll learn that grades are important but they aren’t the only thing of value here. At a school like Princeton, learning more about yourself and allowing yourself the space to do so is important, not only for your academic growth, but for  your mental health. 

Princeton is a rigorous academic institution, that’s a given, but something that is unique to the college experience is that by getting to know yourself on a personal level it can also contribute to greater academic success. In learning about yourself, you’ll discover your most effective study habits, what ways you best learn, are you a morning or night person, do you prefer to study in silence or with music, can you study in groups or do you need isolation, are you easily tired when reading large texts, etc.? You get to know which professors and students you work best with, which values you hold that are non-negotiable when working with others, how to approach large volumes of work, how to best study for different types of exams, when to rest and take a break, and whether you prefer to work in sections or work to completion.

At Princeton, you’ll also learn the importance of connecting with others and maintaining your own mental health. . It is necessary to go beyond just memorizing information in college; you will learn how to understand, analyze, and apply knowledge to contribute to a scholarly conversation or to progress thought as it relates to you and your unique perspective.  In your junior and senior year, the department you choose to concentrate in, the professors you work with, and the topics you want to research, relate heavily upon what YOU are interested in!

Ultimately, this year, I learned that in seeking academic success, it is important to get to know myself and put myself first. 

 

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Fedjine sitting by a tree

Princeton con una discapacidad


Usar una silla de ruedas en un campus que es tan antiguo como Princeton crea situaciones únicas que complican y enriquecen mi experiencia en Princeton. La Oficina de Servicios para Discapacitados (ODS) de Princeton me ha ayudado al hacer las adaptaciones apropiadas que promueven la accesibilidad y la inclusión.

A través de la colaboración con ODS y Alojamiento, terminé con mi propia habitación configurada para mí. Mi habitación es grande y hay espacio para mi silla de ruedas, una silla de ruedas eléctrica de reserva y una silla de ruedas manual. ¡Incluso tengo mi propio baño que es casi del mismo tamaño que la otra parte de mi habitación! El baño tiene barras de apoyo al lado del inodoro y un banco de ducha plegable. ODS también me dio un control remoto que abre automáticamente mi puerta. A veces no les digo a mis amigos que lo tengo, y piensan que mi puerta se abre por arte de magia.

Aunque mi habitación es perfecta, el resto del campus presenta algunos desafíos. Hay algunas partes del campus que no son accesibles para sillas de ruedas, como los dormitorios de mis amigos con múltiples tramos de escaleras y sin ascensor. Con el tiempo, tuve que familiarizarme con las mejores rutas por el campus para evitar las escaleras. Sin embargo, Princeton me ha ayudado a sortear muchas de estas barreras. Si una clase se encuentra en un edificio no accesible, toda la clase se trasladará solo para mí. ODS tiene un mapa gigante para estudiantes con discapacidades físicas donde pueden dibujar los caminos que toman para llegar a clase, y ODS se asegurará de que estos caminos se despejen primero cuando nieva. Todos los autobuses están equipados con elevadores para sillas de ruedas, pero el campus es lo suficientemente pequeño para no tener que tomar los autobuses con tanta frecuencia.

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Naomi in front of metal tiger statue

Principalmente recibo adaptaciones físicas como las descritas anteriormente, pero ODS proporciona servicios a estudiantes con una amplia variedad de discapacidades. Además de las adaptaciones, ODS también promueve una comunidad para estudiantes con discapacidades a través del AccessAbility Center o “El Centro,” un “espacio de reunión de estudiantes en el campus diseñado para el acceso universal y destinado a fomentar la conversación sobre la capacidad, el acceso y la diferencia,” según su página web. El Centro tiene escritorios de altura ajustable, equipo ergonómico de computadora, una caja de luz para el trastorno afectivo estacional y otras cosas interesantes. El Centro también lleva a cabo varios eventos durante todo el año, como descansos de estudio con perros de terapia, conversaciones durante el almuerzo, y masajes. Es realmente un lugar donde los estudiantes de todas las habilidades son bienvenidos.

Animo a los futuros estudiantes con discapacidades a ponerse en contacto con ODS. Me reuní con ellos antes de comprometerme con Princeton, e instantáneamente supe después de la reunión que mis necesidades podían ser satisfechas.

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Princeton With a Disability


Using a wheelchair on a campus that is as old as Princeton causes unique situations that both complicate and enrich my experience at Princeton. Princeton’s Office of Disability Services (ODS) has helped me by making appropriate accommodations that promote accessibility and inclusion.

Through collaborating with ODS and Housing, I ended up with my own room that’s set up for me. My room is so big that there’s plenty of space for my wheelchair, a backup electric wheelchair and a manual wheelchair. I even have my own bathroom that’s almost the same size as the other part of my room! The bathroom has grab bars next to the toilet and a fold-down shower bench. ODS also gave me a remote that automatically opens my door. Sometimes I don’t tell my friends about the remote, and they think my door opens by magic.

While my room is perfect, the rest of the campus does present some challenges. There are some parts of campus that are not wheelchair accessible, such as my friends' dorms with multiple flights of stairs and no elevator. Over time, I’ve had to learn the best routes for me around campus to avoid stairs. However, Princeton has helped me get around many of these barriers. If a class is in a building that isn't accessible, the whole class will be moved just for me. ODS has a giant map for students with physical disabilities where they can draw the paths they take to get to class, and ODS will make sure these paths are cleared first when it snows. All of the buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts, but the campus is small enough that I don’t need to take the buses that often.

 

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Naomi in front of metal tiger statue


I mostly receive physical accommodations like the ones described above, but ODS provides services to students with a wide variety of disabilities. In addition to accommodations, ODS also promotes a community for students with disabilities through the AccessAbility Center or "The Center", a “student gathering space on campus designed for universal access and intended to foster conversation about ability, access and difference,” according to their website. The Center has adjustable height desks, ergonomic computer equipment, a seasonal affective disorder light box and other cool features. The Center also holds various events throughout the year, such as therapy dog study breaks, lunch conversations and massages. It’s truly a place where students of all abilities are welcome.

I encourage prospective students with disabilities to get in touch with ODS. I met with them before I committed to Princeton, and I instantly knew after the meeting that my needs could be met. Feel free to reach out to me as well!