How I Got Princeton Wrong: Advice on College, Career, and Beyond

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In my one year at Princeton, I’ve uncovered an important truth—one that I imagine others who are fairly new to this thing called college also learn about themselves.

I am wrong a lot.

While at Princeton, I’ve discovered that I am wrong quite often—while answering questions on midterms, finding buildings on campus, and speaking with the correct accent in Spanish class (for better or worse, I can never quite get rid of my Southern accent). However, perhaps the most profound example of my wrongness was my previous understanding of the nature of college itself—of what it is and should be. I eventually corrected my thinking, but not after a period of self-discovery and growth in maturity.

Here, my hope is that by sharing my personal experiences, I can shed some light on what I’ve learned over the past year and pass that knowledge on to others, particularly the Class of 2019. I certainly wish that I could’ve read something like this a year ago. After all, understanding what going to college is really all about is imperative to fully appreciating Princeton, the “best old place of all.”

Careerist to Convert

In the not-so-distant past, I viewed college as a mere investment whose rewards would simply be reaped in the form of a successful career and public recognition. In a cutthroat job market, college, particularly an Ivy League institution, was the training ground for employment and a time for making oneself marketable to future employers. Shaped by my own experiences and the well-intentioned advice of those around me, my view was that I simply must get a good return on my four-year investment.

Given my circumstances, this evaluation made good sense, and it definitely rang true during college application season in my senior year of high school. Having come from a small town in which I had spent my entire life, I viewed Princeton as my ticket to escaping rural Georgia and eventually getting a good job far, far away. And since I come from a middle-class background, I felt like going to Princeton would be an utter waste of good fortune if I didn’t fully capitalize on the exceptional career-launching and resume-building resources afforded me.

So once I got an acceptance letter and a financial aid package that was the stuff of dreams, I knew I couldn’t waste any time. Princeton had chosen me (for some reason). Saint-like alumni were paying for my education. My parents told me that Princeton was the opportunity of a lifetime, and friends and family said that I’d have a great job one day. Soon, I felt like I had to prove myself to everyone. I had to go to school and somehow make it all happen. The pressure was on.

I arrived on campus and was, like many freshmen, driven but clueless. I didn’t really know the first thing about taking career-oriented classes or choosing the extracurricular activities that would most directly impact my future. But I was determined to learn. I was frustrated when, looking through the course list before meeting with my adviser, I couldn’t find very many classes that seemed clearly tied to a non-academic profession. That frustration multiplied upon discovering that Princeton’s AB program avoids professional majors altogether (with the exception of architecture and the Woodrow Wilson School). Outside class, I signed up for more activities than I even care to admit and busied myself with determining which ones would look best in the future. I grew anxious when my peers, who were all so brilliant and qualified, seemed to know so much more than me about how to most effectively work Princeton’s career-making system. For me, there was an ever-pressing need and desire to keep up.

I went on like this for a while. It was exhausting. This so-called “taking advantage of my education” wasn’t quite as satisfying as I hoped it would be. While I was racking up on bullet points to fill a resume, I myself often felt unfulfilled. I was consumed with worry over grades and quantifiable measures of success in my classes, but I internalized very little of what I studied. While trying to achieve personal satisfaction that I thought striving for career success could provide, I failed to find joy and instead found emptiness. Surely there was something more to college than the endless struggle to maximize one’s post-graduation prospects. Surely college wasn’t just a four-year race with the one goal of crossing, exhausted, over the finish line into the real world.

I can safely say that at this point, I was having my doubts about this vision of the college experience. Then came the fateful day when, while reading a book for one of my seemingly impractical classes, I encountered the idea that college isn’t just about becoming competitive for a job or gaining credentials. This author dared to posit that college is, first and foremost, about the shaping of the whole person—knowledge, character, discipline, and values. Before this, I had briefly heard the idea that college is a time for “finding yourself” (whatever that meant), but I had just as quickly written it off as the philosophy of an idealist—an elitist, even—or someone who didn’t have to work for a living. This time, though, I actually considered the possibility that college might—at least in part—concern the discovery and shaping of the self.

Still skeptical, I decided put the idea to the test. I thought about what issues and activities I really cared about and shaved down my extracurriculars accordingly. I poured myself into my classes out of sincere interest in the subject—not interest in how that subject could later serve me. I began to relish late night conversations with my roommate and other friends. I thought about and devoted myself more than ever to my faith and the things that actually matter most—the things that aren’t necessarily marketable.

The results amazed me. College became a much more fulfilling experience. I realized how blessed I was to be there, how much I could learn from the amazing people surrounding me, and just how little I knew—how wrong I often was. Slowly, I developed convictions, not just beliefs. I learned truths, not just skills. I had genuine friends, not just casual acquaintances. I had happiness, not just fleeting satisfaction. In short, I was—gasp—starting to find myself.

None of it can go on my resume. But I’m all the better for it.

Understanding College—and Living It

Of course, I’m not the only one who has ever been misguided about the purpose of college. In fact, this seems to be a pretty common problem, as author and Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco recognizes. In his article “College at Risk” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, he discusses at length the popular understanding that college is the place to develop a skilled, competitive workforce. According to Delbanco, one of the primary functions of the historical American college has been to provide education for the whole person and in turn aid in the formation of well-rounded, virtuous citizens—a vital component of our republic. However, viewing college as a mere career investment, as I once did, poses a threat to this educational tradition. He writes that the “view of teaching and learning as an economic driver is…a limited one, which puts at risk America’s most distinctive contribution [the American college] to the history and, we should hope, to the future of higher education.” On a much smaller scale, I know that it was detrimental to my early college experience.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that as college students, we should throw away any preparation for career and the real world. I get it—we all need food and a place to live. Besides, a huge part of college is finding out what we want to do in the future and setting goals for ourselves. However, being consumed by these aspects of college can cause us to lose sight of the fact that we are more than our credentials and careers. After all, we will all one day retire (unless you’re Ruth Bader Ginsburg). Jobs come and go, but we carry the truths and knowledge we learn for the rest of our lives. For this reason, it’s important to realize that we’ve been bestowed with an incredible four years at a crucial point in our lives to learn about ourselves and develop more fully as individuals.

When else will we have such a wealth of opportunity to take classes, study what we love, and seek truth?

When else will we be surrounded by such diverse and talented classmates to inspire and challenge us?

When else will we have the chance to live and work in breathtaking, palatial dormitories (…and Wilson College)?

When else will we have this much time, largely unhampered by the stresses of career and the real world, to discover our convictions, realize our calling, and in the process find ourselves?

Instead of constantly looking ahead to what job or accolades we may receive in the future, take some time to be thankful for the joy and privilege of the here and now. The real world will be here soon enough. And yes, we should get ready for it, but by aspiring to become great people—not just great job applicants.

In the process, we might surprise ourselves; prove ourselves to our family, friends, alumni donors, and University; and—dare I say it—prove ourselves wrong.

Elly Brown is a sophomore from La-Grange Georgia, tentatively majoring in the Politics Department. She can be reached at eabrown@princeton.edu

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