By Audrey Pollnow ’13
Health problems are unfortunately—and unnecessarily—common at Princeton. We all know someone who regularly sleeps few hours a night for multiple days in a row, but many of us are suffering in more troubling ways. According to the COMBO III survey, 49.9% of women and 37.1% of men are ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ depressed. Eating disorders are also a significant problem, and many of us end up chemically dependent, perhaps most commonly on caffeine. Roommates are McCoshed and PMCed. Mental and physical health can get so bad that students leave Princeton altogether; indeed, I’d hazard that every Princeton student who reads this article has known at least one person who has taken a leave of absence because Princeton was not conducive to his or her physical or mental health.
Princeton offers a variety of resources to help with these problems. In addition to offering medical treatment and counseling, the University makes a point of warning us: freshmen orientation and AlcoholEdu highlights some of the dangers of college life, the UHS website features information, and posters abound on campus. Some tell us to sleep more and others tell us that we don’t need to drink a lot to have fun. These are worthwhile efforts, and many of them are good, but they fail to address one major contributor to these problems: the people in our lives.
We Princetonians typically know that a given behavior is unhealthy, but we choose it anyway, sometimes because we’re unhappy, because we think it will help us achieve our goals, or because choosing it is part of the culture. Our happiness and unhappiness can be deeply affected by the people around us, by close friends and the interest they take in us–or the lack thereof. Serious friendships invariably require the alteration of our goals to include the happiness and well-being of our friends, yet we are entirely unable to do this when we fail to take care of ourselves. It hardly needs mentioning that the people in our lives create the culture we live in.
Articles and posters are limited tools for overcoming these problems. Saying that a particular decision is unhealthy or not conducive to happiness will not always convince a person who is already unhappy to make the necessary changes. Happiness can seem so far away that it’s not appealing; the better goal seems to be numbness and the relief it brings, or the opposite: feeling something strong, regardless of the cost. Many people who are unhappy cannot recognize that their own health is intrinsically valuable, and no amount of argument will convince them of this. On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to realize that your health is important when you think about the health of your friends and realize that they care about your health in a similar way. Indeed, these are the very people who can best confront you about your decision to sleep too little or drink too much. “We love you, and this is not okay” is much more compelling than a poster saying that sleep deprivation is associated with decreased academic performance.
The solution to the aforementioned health problems, then, should involve fostering the sorts of communities that facilitate serious friendships. Through the residential colleges, Princeton has attempted to do this at an institutional level, but this has not been sufficiently successful. A lot of people are lonely here. It’s easy to fall through the cracks: Your dean and RCA cannot ensure that you have close friends. You may not have roommates, or if you do, their main community might be their team or religious group or eating club, whereas you might not be the member of a tight knit academic or extracurricular community. Ultimately, the residential colleges offer one more opportunity to make friends, but they do not ensure that every student has someone looking after them. You might find yourself in McCosh with the stomach flu, and nobody has come to visit. That would certainly be a miserable moment.
The University is situated to facilitate or impede the developments of healthy communities, depending on the institutional decisions it makes. Part of the problem with the residential colleges is that they can fail to offer students a well-developed community. Depending on the college, the RCA, and the other kids on the floor, the residential college can seem no more a community than a dorm that features one of the dining halls. Much of the programming the residential colleges offer is optional and requires a conscious decision to be involved: students who are shy and those who are inclined to excessive work or drink are less likely to pursue these activities.
The University could strengthen these communities in a variety of structural ways. For instance, each semester of freshmen year, every student could be required to take either a writing seminar or a freshmen seminar. All these freshmen-only classes could meet at 11-12:20 on Monday and Wednesday, which would give the students in them the opportunity to eat lunch with one another afterward, and without too much fuss. (In fact, the University could offer grade-level specific classes at this time period for all four years, requiring students to take one every semester.) More ambitiously, Princeton could require the incoming freshmen to select their seminar of choice over the summer, sorting them into floors by seminar. The members of a zee group would therefore be the members of a writing seminar and later a freshman seminar (or vice versa).
The University could also offer longer term housing options and more involved housing options. A gentle change would be to establish one building as a four-year dorm, guaranteeing all the freshmen who live there the right to stay in the same building all four years. This would increase the likelihood that students in that dorm would invest in the community, which would in turn strengthen it. A more radical version would be to give all incoming freshmen the right to remain in their same dorm building all four years, which would reinforce the effect.
The University would also do well to allow students to remain in the residential colleges without being on the University meal plan. Requiring students who remain in the colleges to sign a meal contract does little to promote community—especially when that contract can be used at any dining hall—but it does discourage underclassmen who intend to join eating clubs from investing socially in their residential college. They know that their time with their residential college is structurally limited, merely a right of passage to be traversed before reaching a supposedly more lucrative social scene.
With a few structural changes, the University could establish the zee group, and secondarily the residential college, as more important loci of community life at Princeton. This, of course, will not be sufficient to ensure that everyone is looked after: for that, we need friends, and we need people who feel responsible for us. Some students happen upon these friends randomly, and many of these friendships are forged in some sort of cooperation—academic, athletic, or artistic—or in some sort of community which promotes a certain set of shared values. (For instance, I suspect that many of the religious fellowships on campus help to foster friendship, as do some of the discussion, advocacy, or service groups.)
By supporting the development of these communities, the University can support students within them. Of course, the success of these communities also depends on the students within them, and it’s imperative that we develop a sense of belonging and a sense of obligation to our neighbors. I suspect that a lot of the students who slip through the cracks here do so because each of the people in their lives thinks that they belong primarily to some other community of friends. (This is where establishing zee groups as primary communities could help.) However, I also suspect that we’re not in the habit of actively looking out for people. I know when I arrived at college I was more concerned with finding friends than I was with helping other people to find friends. There is obviously a selfishness in this, but it also hadn’t occurred to me that anyone else really had to worry about friendlessness or loneliness. I am sure many students come to Princeton with ambitions of curing AIDS or eliminating malaria, but I doubt that many freshmen dedicate their first semester to drawing out the shy, listening to the nervous, or finding the lonely.
Explicitly reminding students at Princeton of their obligations to one another—of upperclassmen to foster communities in which underclassmen can easily make friends, of underclassmen to make friends and to keep an eye out for one another—could go a long way, particularly if these reminders came through friends and close community members. OA leaders often encourage particular values in their freshmen, and some OA groups begin freshmen year as healthful social influences. RCAs could do something similar, asking zees about how the other students on the floor are doing, and encouraging them to treat one another with active kindness. Hearing this sort of language from the President of the University at opening exercises would be a good way to start, rather than patting us on the back for getting into Princeton. Often, the autonomy and self-reliance which helped us to get into Princeton prevent us from seeking help when we need it because we are uncomfortable relying on other people. Encouraging us to take care of ourselves so that we can help other people, and encouraging us to accept help in taking care of ourselves, could be the first step toward the type of community where each student thrives.