Prinecton, New Jersey: On a sublime afternoon at Princeton University, Nikhil Seth looks like he could lounge forever in the courtyard of the Woodrow Wilson School, sitting by the fountain and talking squash. He can’t; there is a lab report due in two hours, and he hasn’t even begun writing it yet.
On Dean’s Date at the end of every Princeton semester, undergraduate students must turn in all assignments by 5pm. Only dire excuses are accepted; one PhD candidate, who teaches classes in computational neuroscience, wryly remarks that many students’ grandmothers tend to die exactly at 4pm on that date every semester.
Sukrit Silas (top) at the Princeton University campus in the US (Photo by: Brenden McInerney / Mint)
For now, though, Seth doesn’t look unduly worried. He prefers to talk about squash.
“Princeton has come runner-up a few years in a row now, so our coach didn’t ease up at all this year,” he says. So, for four hours a day, six days a week, Seth was on the courts, pounding the life out of a small rubber ball.
Throughout his first academic year, Seth’s social life consisted essentially of his squash team. But that’s how it is for everybody, he says. An undergraduate social life at Princeton is defined largely by the clubs and organizations you belong to.
Seth is one of six Indian undergraduates that Mint tracked as a part of its series on The Indian Education Dream, through their freshman year at Princeton. The others seem to have reached similar conclusions about life at Princeton.
“They have to have a lot of stuff here to keep you occupied,” says Sukrit Silas. Princeton is only an hour from New York City, but it can be a deeply insulated world unto itself. Silas remembers that when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, he heard about it on just one day, and even basic facts about the Indian Premier League—that foreign stars are playing, that it had already begun—were new to him.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Namita Devidayal studied for an undergraduate degree in political science, Princeton was even more isolated.
“It was just a small town with one main street and a few very expensive stores,” Devidayal, a Mumbai-based writer and the vice-president of the Princeton Club of India, says. “When you come from a city like Mumbai, you want to be in a big, multi-cultural city. By my third year, I was sick of that small-town sensation.” “There’s no news unless it’s about something that actually happens here, and of course, if you did just academics, you’d be bored stiff,” Silas says. So, he joined the Princeton band and the International Relations Council, travelling to other universities in North America with both groups. He registered with other organizations as well, he says, “but there’s no time to do everything”.
Jahnabi Barooah had a different problem. “It was initially difficult to find something to do and fit in,” she says. She joined, for instance, the Society of Women Engineers, “but then I wondered: Why do you even need a Society of Women Engineers? So, I stopped going to those meetings.”
Rohan Malik (Photo by: Brenden McInerney / Mint)
Barooah’s most engaging activity comes with a student volunteer group. In Trenton, a nearby town, the group worked with a non-profit that offered shelter to teenagers on the street. “We just painted rooms and did minor work, but that was very moving, somehow,” she says. “Just to talk to them, to see how much like you they are. I don’t smoke or do drugs, but I realized that if I didn’t have the family I have, I too could have gone anywhere.”
When she has a day off, Barooah occasionally volunteers at a soup kitchen, but she’s more involved in feeding her peers at Princeton.
To offset the price tag of a Princeton degree, both Barooah and Silas work in the dining halls. Barooah pulls one or two shifts per week, but Silas had to do five shifts his first semester and three shifts in his second. Silas hates his work; Barooah loves it. “I know, people think it’s strange,” Barooah says. “But you get to meet so many people this way, people from all over the world! You could pay me more to not work there, and I still wouldn’t take it.” Silas declares that he’ll be working elsewhere next semester.
Undergraduates eat in the university-run dining halls until, at the end of their second year, they become eligible to participate in a unique Princeton tradition: the eating club. On either side of Prospect Avenue are 10 clubs that serve not just a gustatory purpose, but also a social one.
Nikhil Seth (Photo by: Brenden McInerney / Mint)
“Some of these clubs are more exclusive than others, and you have to have an affiliation to get in,” says Seth. When Devidayal was at Princeton, some of the clubs were still all-male preserves. “They fancied themselves, I think, to be out of The Great Gatsby,” she says. The clubs turned fully co-ed only in 1991, the year Devidayal graduated.
At the end of their fourth semester, students go through various selection processes, then sit back and hope. As a member of the squash team, though, Seth has visited some of the clubs already. “The food is all right—I guess it depends on where you go,” he says, then pauses to consider his words. “But they’re better than the dining halls, definitely. The eating clubs are not cooking for 2,000 people at once, so it’s bound to be better.”
Does he know which one he’ll join, when he gets the chance? “I’m not sure,” Seth says. He’s getting antsy now, looking. His deadline is uncomfortably close, and he doesn’t want to bump off an aged relative if he can help it. He just wants, more than anything else, to hand his report in and get done with his first year at Princeton.
What students say about summer of 2008:
Shiv Dutt: “I just got back to Delhi, from a holiday at the Grand Canyon and surrounding areas. I plan to play plenty of chess and piano, to trouble my three dogs, and to find out what areas of math I’m most interested in. Currently geometry seems most exciting!”
Sukrit Silas: “I’m going to spend a couple of months doing research at an embryology lab here at Princeton. There was a position open, so I grabbed it. And then I’ll spend a few weeks at home in New Delhi.”
Jahnabi Barooah: “I’m going back home. For the entire summer. And I can’t wait!”
Nikhil Seth: “I’m taking a couple of summer classes at Tufts University for a month, and then visiting my sister in New York. I’ll go back home to Mumbai too, but I’ll try to do some work there. After a week of doing nothing, I get bored anyway, and I don’t have too many friends there now.”
Rohan Malik: “I’m planning to teach physics at a school in New Delhi for a couple of months. And of course, I’m going to spend lots of time just relaxing at home with my family, meeting friends, and going on holiday.”