I sit in the Forbes dining hall every Sunday for brunch and notice, through forkfuls of baked brie and lox, the tower of the Graduate College across the golf course. Its beautiful, austere architecture bares a remarkable similarity to the tower of Mordor in the bleak winter weather, and the field separating the inn from the tower, coated in layers of snow and ice, seems treacherous to cross. Unlike in the summer months, when friends might occasionally entice me into walking to the Graduate College for Thursday night dinner, frigid winter weather limits my movements. Even when I used to brave the walk, I never actually interacted with graduate students when I arrived.
In my daily routine, I rarely come into contact with grad students in any meaningful way. Aside from my Portuguese class, which has two graduate students, I only interact with those pursuing masters and PhDs between conferences at the Writing Center. Sometimes, I recognize grad students studying in off campus on Nassau Street coffee shops. In all of these cases, my interactions are minimal, either directly related to a class’ content or to small talk.
I find myself regularly wanting to get to know grad students, but our communities are isolated from one another. Seeing that grad college tower reminds me that there’s another group of students on this campus that I barely speak to. To be honest, I also hardly know anything about them. In asking myself what graduate students do for fun, I drew a blank, having only ever seen them studying. I’ve heard rumors of the “DBar,” a graduate student bar in the basement of the graduate college that carries a reputation for being cheap but lame among my undergraduate friends.
Some undergraduates are way more connected, and have friendships and relationships with the students across the golf course. Azza Cohen, for instance, is an undergraduate student who met her boyfriend, a former Princeton graduate student, in an Urdu class that was primarily graduate students (she also happens to be the only undergrad who I’ve met who has been to the elusive DBar and who knows about the Graduate Student Government).
I sat down with various students in an attempt to demystify the graduate experience, and maybe to figure out why so many undergrads haven’t formed any significant grad student friendships. I met each student through a coincidence or a recommendation. None of these individual experiences can account for the entirety of graduate social life, just as my own separation from graduate students does not apply to many undergraduates. However, it is exactly this lack of continuity – the fact that some undergraduates, because of their classes and activities, become friends with graduate students while others don’t know a single one – that made me notice the institutional separation of the two groups.
A central factor causing this separation is a lack of informal, open social space at Princeton where it is normal for both undergraduate and graduate students to hang out. Libraries are for studying, as are coffee shops unless you’re talking with someone you’ve already met. It would take a coincidence to meet in such circumstance – for instance, while sitting at an unsteady corner table in Small World, I ran into my former English professor, who happened to be meeting with a first year English PhD student. I later contacted this student – Matthew Ritger – for an interview.
The primary social scene for undergraduates centers on the Eating Clubs and excludes the majority of grad students. Each of the grad students I met had been to the street but expressed that the experience was strange, underwhelming, and wholly geared towards undergrads. As Matthew explained, “Eating Clubs have a reputation and reality of being closed off to the general public. Even if you only need your PUID, it’s not a place to just stop by.” The few times Matthew has been to Eating Clubs, he went to Terrace and Tower, sat outside with friends, avoided undergraduates, and drank the clubs’ free beer. Jake Herb, a graduate student member of 2D co-op, also had such feelings – he went to Tiger Inn on a USA theme night, where the student behind tap told him he had to “chug one to get one.” He noted the huge age difference between himself and the members, thinking to himself, “dude, I’m five years older than you.” As if confirming the strangeness of the situation, one of his undergraduate friends saw him and reacted with: “what the hell are you doing here?”
Graduate student social life is equally unwelcoming to the average undergraduate. As I began interviewing students, I myself started making plans to crash a DBar event in an attempt at participant observation (the night I planned to attend was “middle school dance themed: playing all the best hits from 1995-2005”). However, the website for the bar told me that such a visit would be impossible – you must be over 21 to enter, and you have to get a guest pass from a graduate student already a member at the bar. The walking distance to the DBar is not the only factor stopping undergraduates from participating in graduate student social life.
Apparently, though, DBar isn’t very different from Prospect Avenue. Merrick Anderson, an RGS, explained that the space is basically the graduate version of the street: “I’ve been in eating clubs and it’s not totally dissimilar [to the DBar] – there’s beer pong, cheap drinks, loud music, and dancing. Sloppy things happen and bad decisions are made.” Those living in the graduate college make up the majority of the graduate students who attend the DBar – Matthew, who is a grad college resident, goes for the cheap drinks. Jacob Schwartz, a grad student member of 2D co-op, did the same when he used to live only a floor above the bar. However, other students, living either on campus as RGSs or in the various graduate student apartments beyond the grad college, hardly ever attend. The social options beyond the DBar for graduate students include house parties or travel to New York City and Philadelphia, all of which are completely unofficial off-campus spaces.
To a certain degree, it makes sense that undergrads and grad students are socially separated. Friendships between the two groups can’t be the same as those between two graduates or two undergraduates. Age differences contribute to a strange dynamic – “as a grad student, you’re half expected to be an adult and half-expected to be a student,” Jake said. This age gap is combined with their role as preceptors, which places them more in the category of professor than student. These differences are the main cause for why it’s unsettling for undergraduates to be completely immersed in the social lives of graduate students and vice versa.
However, as I spoke with each graduate student, I slowly realized that informal interactions between undergrads and grad student, whether through friendships or mentorship, are important for both groups. For undergraduates, getting to know graduate students means gaining role models, both intellectually and otherwise. However, the benefits extend beyond mentorship: graduate students also simply have very different life experiences than undergrads. According to the Davis International Center’s report from 2014, over 37% of graduate students are international, compared with the undergraduate population, which is less than 11% international.
In addition to having more diverse nationalities, graduate students had different undergraduate experiences. My first interview was with Jonathan Aguirre, a first year graduate student in my Portuguese class, in the Friend Center after our class ended. Over a whirring fan, Jonathan told me about attending City College of New York as an undergraduate. Even my brief interview with Jonathan put my undergraduate education into a wider perspective.
Undergraduates would not be the only ones to benefit from more contact with graduate students. Jake felt a huge benefit from his relationships with undergraduates at 2D co-op. He told me that, in terms of general cynicism, “Grad students can have a kind of defeatist mentality, but being with undergraduates can be motivating,” The discussions at 2D range from topics of food to social justice instead of being limited to a single disciplinary focus – something refreshing for Jake, given that his graduate community was mostly limited to the plasmophysics department. Our youthful idealism combined with graduate perspectives makes for interesting, mutually beneficial friendships despite our age differences.
In that sense, even though all undergrads and grad students might not connect, they should have equal opportunities for forming friendships. Instead of abandoning the social dimension of grad-undergrad interactions because of our age gap and separate social lives, Princeton should keep the benefits of these friendships in mind and facilitate more undergraduate-graduate informal interactions.
There are some official, organized settings in which undergrads and grad students have contact, but Princeton could stand to expand such programming. Sukaina Hirji is a graduate student who meets undergraduates both as an RGS and through her participation in the Philosophy Women’s Reading Group. She believes these kinds of official mentorship are essential, and that grad students play an important role for undergrads, especially those in her department (of course, note that RGSs only interact with underclassmen).
Precepting is another official, departmental way for undergraduates to meet graduate students, but even this does not affect all graduate students. Matthew, for instance, does not precept because he is in his first year in the English department. Neither does Jacob, due to the structure of the graduate program in plasmophysics. There is so much room to develop graduate and undergraduate mentorship further, a point that Azza felt strongly about. She recently set up a program connecting history concentrators with graduate students in the department for fully funded coffee conversations. More extensive programming like this could exist on Princeton’s campus. Graduate students can help with academic plans and, because, many graduate students worked in their field before returning to academia, they can provide insightful career advice.
In addition to such mentorship programs, Princeton could provide an informal social space, alternative to the street and Graduate College, where both groups could spend time. A few spaces like this do exist, but they are very limited and beyond the scope of the typical grad student experience. For both Jake and Jacob, joining 2D completely altered their interactions with undergraduates, taking them from having a few acquaintances to actually developing close friendships. Ask Jake explains it, “Before 2D, I didn’t know any of them [undergrads]. I only knew the ones in the lab. They were always furiously working and not interested in making friends.” When eating together in an equal, social setting, however, this dynamic changed. According to Jacob, “When you’re at 2D, you cease to be graduates and undergraduates – just people eating food.”
Grad students can also become members of certain extra curricular activities. Merrick met undergrads when he practiced with the Frisbee team. Matthew meets some through creative writing events and Jonathan used to practice soccer with undergrads. Azza knows one graduate student in Bhangra, and another who got involved in PACE Breakout Trips. However, this engagement is hardly widespread. Princeton definitely has room for another, more well-known context in which undergrads can connect with grad students.
This isn’t to say Princeton’s peer institutions facilitate such interaction any better than we do. Matthew described to me how the size of Cornell’s campus makes graduate and undergraduates even more separate than at Princeton: “At a school like Cornell, with a bigger town, undergraduates live uphill, closer to campus,” he explained. “Because Princeton is so much smaller, there are more opportunities for interaction. We have the same coffee shops and restaurants.”
In this sense, Princeton has the raw materials. We have a small campus that, despite the segregating icy golf course, is spatially suited for a unified community. One proposal to change our separation is to reinstate a campus pub (an institution that does exist on most other college campuses), in which it would be normal for both graduates and undergraduates to hang out casually. Though this would present the same 21+ barrier as the DBar, as a casual conversation space where grad students and of-age undergrads have the potential to meet, it would begin to remedy the institutional separation of the student population. Unlike in the institution of RGS activities, graduate and undergraduate students would interact on equal footing while maintaining their own social lives outside of the space.
A comment Jake said at the beginning of his interview stays with me. He told me his expectations for interactions with undergrads, coming to Princeton from rural Pennsylvania: “When you think of Princeton, you think of engaging conversations between like-minded people, both grad students and undergraduates.” Over the past few weeks, I had six great conversations, four accompanied by good coffee, and few that have any chance of continuing. Because of campus spaces, I’m unlikely to run into Sukaina, Merrick, Jake, Jacob, or Matthew. I’m back to my old routine, where laughing at geese on the frozen golf course lake with friends at Sunday brunch is the closest I get to the grad college.