President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Making the Most of Your Princeton Years
October 11, 2006
On September 10 we ushered in a new academic year with the colorful pageantry of Opening Exercises. In my address to freshmen, I gave the Class of 2010 my recipe for a successful undergraduate experience, and I would like to share part of what I told them with you now. — S.M.T.
Today marks the beginning of a great adventure for the members of what I have every reason to believe will become the great Class of 2010. And it is to you, in particular, that I want to direct my words this afternoon. In the course of the next four years, you will find that there are more ways to look at the world than there are books in Firestone Library; you will learn that the pursuit of knowledge is both liberating and demanding; and you will discover your capacity to grow as scholars, citizens, and classmates.
Now all of this may seem a little nebulous as you fret about the sleeping habits of your roommates or debate the wisdom of your course selections or try to navigate the campus without looking as bewildered as you feel. Yes, you may be thinking, it’s great that I am going to Princeton, but the questions that concern me most right now are “Will I survive?” and “How?”
I can answer the first of these questions with a simple yes. You will survive. For we have chosen you with care, and you, I know, have looked us over thoroughly as well. All of you are exceptionally gifted in one way or another, or perhaps in more ways than one; all of you have shown a clear determination to use your talents to the full; and all of you bring something different—and something special—to your class and to our campus. Once you find your academic sea legs, you will do much more than survive—you will thrive, exploring new fields of knowledge, delighting us all with your artistic and athletic prowess, challenging us with your original world view, forming lifelong friendships, and finding ways to be of service to others. In time, the butterflies you feel today will be just a distant memory, and your confidence in your abilities will match the faith that we have placed in each and every one of you.
How to make the most of your time at Princeton requires a longer answer, but I think it can be boiled down to five essential ingredients—the keys to a truly successful undergraduate experience.
First and foremost, find and then follow your passions. This is not the time in your life to play it safe or to rest on your laurels. This is a time to be adventurous and to be honest with yourself about what really gives meaning to your life. Perhaps you are a closet poet but have never had the confidence to share your verse with others. If that is the case, sign up for a course in our Program in Creative Writing where outstanding poets and teachers like Paul Muldoon and C. K. Williams are ready to work with you. Perhaps you have been inspired to understand and find cures for intractable diseases. Then chart a course for the Lewis Thomas Laboratory, where Professor of Molecular Biology Yigong Shi is unraveling the molecular mechanisms by which cancer cells make the decision to grow or die, or for the Lewis-Sigler Institute, where Professor Manuel Llinás is exploring the life cycle of the Plasmodium parasite, the cause of malaria, which claims some 1.5 million lives a year. Or perhaps you want to understand and contribute to the fragile ties that hold our global community together. If this is your passion, then I recommend you visit the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, where Professor Gary Bass is exploring the efficacy of humanitarian interventions and Professor Jennifer Widner is examining how failed states can be effectively rebuilt. And if you are a budding engineer, who wants to use technology to change the world, I suggest you gravitate toward Professors of Computer Science Larry Peterson and Jennifer Rexford, who are inventing the next version of the Internet.
Or perhaps you are one of the many students who arrive on your first day at Princeton without having committed yourself to any one subject or pursuit. You are not only in luck but you are in the majority, because past history tells us that 70 percent of you are going to concentrate in a discipline other than the one you declared on your application to Princeton. For you, our course offerings contain a vast array of possibilities from which to begin your search for what fascinates you. Indeed, what makes this University and this point in your lives so wonderful is that there are very few subjects you cannot pursue. The greatest difficulty you will face, I predict, is narrowing your choices to four or five each semester.
Being true to your passions now may take you in directions that have little to do with the career you will ultimately follow, but I want to assure you that this is not a problem. Princeton is not a trade school where young men and women are groomed for specific occupations. Rather, the purpose of a liberal arts education, to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, our 13th president, almost 100 years ago, is to acquire the power to distinguish good reasoning from bad, to digest and interpret evidence, and to develop a taste for knowledge and a deep respect for the integrity of the human mind.
This is the reason we place so much emphasis on a multidisciplinary education—one that encourages scientists to study the novels of Toni Morrison and the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, and humanists to study Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. A liberal arts education is not, as a literal translation might suppose, a leftwing curriculum for artists. On the contrary, it encompasses a breadth of academic study that is, according to the Latin derivation, “proper to free persons.” In medieval times, education was limited to a small elite, but today the liberal arts are pursued by all who wish to exercise their minds, freely and openly, in order to acquire the intellectual grounding they need to excel in life, regardless of their profession.
This brings me to your parents, who are understandably anxious to turn the generous investment they are making in your education to good account. Thanks to the cell phone and e-mail, not to mention text messaging, you have instant access to your parents, and they have instant access to you. I can hear them now: “A course on ‘Women and Film’? How is that going to pay the bills? Will that get you a job?” Such questions, although perfectly understandable, should not be allowed to drive your intellectual agenda here. Always remember that a Princeton education, no matter how impractical it may, at times, appear on paper, is more than the sum of its parts and will always open doors in the world beyond the FitzRandolph Gates. Now is the time to do what you are compelled by your intellectual curiosity to do. The future, with Princeton degree firmly in hand, will take care of itself, and your life will be richer for it.
My second piece of advice is to be bold and to explore uncharted territory. Important though it is to follow your longstanding passions, you should also take this opportunity to embrace the unfamiliar, to leave your comfort zone, and study subjects or participate in extracurricular activities that are all but unknown to you right now. The curriculum is designed so that you can look at the world through many different prisms: from the behavioral models of psychology to the moral dilemmas of philosophy; from the universal theories of physics to the cultural immersion of study abroad. This also entails seeking out students and professors who differ from and with you, listening to widely divergent points of view, and questioning your own assumptions. If you only talk with those who look and think and sound just like you, you will learn painfully little about your fellow human beings and the worlds they represent. That is why diversity of every variety is so much more than a fashionable catchphrase—it is essential to your intellectual and personal growth and is fundamental to a Princeton education.
The third thing you should do is pace yourselves. I have given you a sense of the myriad opportunities before you and, of course, I want you to take full advantage of your years here, but you can’t do everything at once or even everything you want to do in four fast-moving years. Taking on too much in your freshman year is just as problematic as leaving too much until your senior year. Instead, you need to make wise choices about how to spend your time, which sometimes means sacrificing one thing in order to do something else well instead of superficially. What I am trying to say—and here I may actually win some points with your parents—is that you need to keep your eye on both the forest and the trees, but alas not all the trees, or at least not all the trees at the same time.
A fourth key to success is to understand and embrace the sense of responsibility that comes with an education at an institution like this one. The distinctive qualities of a Princeton education—with its emphasis on independent work conducted in close collaboration with internationally renowned teachers—are possible only because of the loyalty and devotion of generations of Princetonians who have gone before you. They expect that you will not simply be consumers of education, but that you will be users of your education to go out into the world and make a difference; that you will advance the world’s knowledge and understanding; that you will increase its health and well-being; that you will expand its commitment to fair treatment and respect for others; that you will define your lives in terms that are larger than yourselves. We ask that you begin by asking today—as you begin your lifelong Princeton journey—how you can embody our informal motto, “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Whether you become a Big Brother for a local school child or spend a fall break building houses with Habitat for Humanity or simply give a helping hand to a fellow student who is struggling, becoming a Princetonian means adopting service to others as a part of who you are.
Last but not least, I want your years at Princeton to be fun. Yes, you heard me, fun! I hope you will take the time to enjoy the beauty of the campus and its surroundings, the lights of New York and the treasures of Philadelphia, and the talents of your classmates, teammates, and friends. As long as what you do does not pose harm to yourself or to others, I give you free license to be as silly and inventive as you like. You won’t have either the time or the freedom to explore yourself and the world in quite this way ever again, so please enjoy these years as fully as you can. Yes, there is plenty of work to do while you are here, but this is a place to live as well as to work, and a place to learn how to live life to the fullest. Princeton is serious, but it is not somber; it is a place that values beauty and freshness and light and the renewal that comes from times of reflection and times of joy. So I hope you will embark on the next four years with a light heart and in high spirits.
Now you have your homework for the next four years. Pursue your passions, venture where you have never ventured before, pace yourself, serve others, and have lots of fun. If you can do all this—and I am confident you can—your lives will be forever shaped by the experiences you will have and share over these next four years. Good luck to you all—I’ll be watching!