Princeton: The Sequel

Brandon Davis’ Princetonian story — as reported in Tuesday’s “06880” — elicited plenty of comments. 

It also brought an email from Brandon himself.

The Staples grad — just completing his sophomore year in college — believed I’d misinterpreted both the intent of his original newspaper piece, and his overall experience at Princeton.  He also felt the focus of my story was wrong.

I’m happy to hand Brandon — a very bright, energetic, positive and forward-thinking young man — the talking stick.  He says:

Dan –

I’m sorry if I misled you when we spoke, but I really think you got this issue wrong.  It’s not about my experience versus other people’s experiences — “it” is something that the VAST majority of students at Princeton — and other colleges — go through during their time here, at varying degrees and for various lengths.

Brandon Davis

I don’t know who wrote the one comment on my original column saying she/he didn’t sense “it,” but from my experience you would have to be totally clueless not to see at least some of your peers going through these difficult times.

Everyday stress about schoolwork is not the problem — we expect that, and most students can handle it.  The real problem is a kind of stress that leaves students unable to perform at their optimal level, that leads to disaffection from the university instead of engagement; students just throw up their hands and say “I give up.”  It’s feeling so low that there’s no way out.

I know a number of students who have had breakdowns here, though that is still uncommon.  This kind of stress is not preparing students for the real world, or teaching them how to work hard.  It shuts students down, at least temporarily.

No one is really sure how to deal with it — officially, the University Health Services calls it “acute depression.”  It’s not often talked about, but, as the comments on the Prince website and the feedback I’ve received show, most everyone recognizes “it.”  I merely wanted to help open up a conversation.

Your blog post focused on me and painted me as a querulous and inept student, when in truth, I’ve done quite well academically at Princeton, have made a number of good friends, and am involved with the school.  I write columns every two weeks, and as my column clarifies, “it” wasn’t even my idea.  It was a friend’s suggestion, and something that I realized also needs to be addressed.

Though I would certainly like some things to change here, I’m not trying to start an assault on my school.  My column was not about me: I wanted to give voice to what so many students experience, and offer a small piece of encouragement/advice.

As I wrote in my comment on your post, I spoke with you so that people in Westport would have an idea what Princeton, and the college experience in general, can be like for many students.  The Ivy League schools stood on a pedestal at Staples, and I wanted people to realize that there is another side of going to a highly-competitive college.

I’m sorry that I did not make my purpose clear.  Your post seems to be about a self-centered college student who can’t keep up.  I keep up just fine.  As I said, I have successfully blocked out the “noise,” and I think many students learn to as well; still, “it” is all around me, and I can’t help but wonder if another school would have been a more productive place.  I wanted high school students to see that, too.  Regardless, I came to Princeton and now, I am absolutely making the most of it.

I get lots of flack for the columns I write in the Prince, but this is different.  Your post is about me, not about the issue; this is attention I did not want and certainly do not deserve.  I am sure that it was not on purpose, but I wish you had made me the narrator of this story rather than its main character.


3 responses to “Princeton: The Sequel

  1. Brandon,

    I appreciate your comments. In fact, I didn’t actually personalize the article that Dan wrote to you in particular. I am aware of this phenomenon at colleges. Kids feel alienated, pressured, diminished and overwhelmed in college. I guess for me the amazing part of your story is that even the best and the brightest kids at one of our country’s most prestigious institutions can and do feel that way as well.

    I think you did your fellow classmates a service by airing the issue. The Princeton “does not comment on articles from the student paper” seems arrogant and out of touch. Why not comment? Afraid of something? It takes two to dialog. Your article should have opened this dialog with the school. If it does not, that’s really a shame and reflects on the university not on you.

    Lastly, so what if you were feeling overwhelmed? And as you point out, you aren’t. But if you were, would that be a sign of weakness that should open you up to scorn and ridicule? This dynamic that you have experienced here is part of the problem at Princeton. If you are unhappy with the status quo, this must indicate that you are weak and there is something wrong with you. So you should be either rejected, ignored (Princeton’s solution) or be held up as weak and a whiner. Sadly, people can be mean and this is a small microcosm of what you will likely see when you leave Princeton. I too have no solution and it has puzzled and bothered me for years. But I am hopeful that courageous kids like you will be part of solving this dilemma.

  2. I enjoyed the (original) article, and found myself substituting “Staples” for “Princeton.” The opportunities our town gives its 9-12th graders are just astounding. But so is the stress. Some kids — buoyed by success, supported by loved ones, or blessed with a strong internal locus of control — flourish there. But there are many who flounder, who blossom late, or who find the expectation that they produce both top-notch work and a top-notch narrative (for college) daunting. So daunting that it’s a place where cheating has reportedly become routine, even (perhaps especially) for Honors and AP students.

    All this talk about developing 21st-century skills and competing in the global market masks the fact that we are ignoring the manner in which most human beings develop into confident, resilient, creative problem-solvers: They grow up in environments that are primarily nurturing (not competitive), that reward risk-taking (imagine not grading a kid every time he burped!), and that involve fun and play (by which I mean real play, playful play — not play that is really just another opportunity to display prowess).

    Education in America today is focused on product rather than process. I hope Westport will be among the first of the “highly rated school system” towns to return to nurturing the spirit of our children. I know property values are at stake here, but SAT scores and “impressive” college acceptances are not the only measure of success: There are even studies that suggest super-academics are less likely than their peers to be successful businesspeople in the long run. It’s the character traits and habits of mind we nurture in our children — even more than their intellect and self-promotion capacity — that will determine their happiness (and, yes, success) as adults.

  3. The Dude Abides

    Good response, Brandon. As a journalist, you will learn that you will never please everyone. The expectations and satisfaction must come from within. My worries is the label of “acute depression.” As you may know, suicide is the highest among young adults in your age group. I think you’re mention of this was “spot on” and a hopeful reminder to many students as well as their parents, that this can lead to tragedy. But keep the spirits up. They are not kidding you when they tell you that this may be the best four years of your life. Oh my God, I sound just like my father. Keep pounding those keys, bro. Life is good.