Skip over navigation

Social & Residential Life Recommendations

Larger-Scale Events

We begin this section of our report by acknowledging that many social events occur on campus every year and some of them are very popular. If there is a single most popular event, it appears to be the annual dodgeball tournament in which thousands of undergraduates (as well as some graduate students and members of the faculty and staff) compete under the banners of numerous organizations, including some created specifically to participate in this all-day (and into the early morning hours) event. Concerts on Prospect Avenue during lawnparties (fall) and houseparties (spring) get high marks, and in terms of on-campus events, the Pre-rade seems to have become increasingly popular each year as more non-freshmen participate, and a number of students commented favorably on Fristfest.

Many students almost waxed poetic in their testimonials to the Undergraduate Student Government's University Film Organization (UFO) program that provides free late-night movies (with free popcorn and soda) at the Garden Theater on Nassau Street and at venues on campus. Students particularly liked the regularity and predictability of this program, and the fact that one can feel comfortable attending alone or with friends, and deciding at the last minute. They thought that one of the attractions is that it is the kind of socializing they would do "in real life" — it is a way they have fun at home — and thus it is important that at least some of the films are shown at the Garden. Some students suggested similar regular trips to local bowling alleys. Other on-campus activities that students commended included intramural athletics; free skating at Baker Rink; the recently introduced program of Late Thursdays at the Art Museum when the museum stays open until 10 p.m. and offers amenities like live music and food; the home-baked cookies and relaxed atmosphere of the Murray-Dodge Café ("dedicated to the fine art of being open"); and Outdoor Action's rock climbing wall at Princeton Stadium.

While many students suggested additional social activities targeted at specific audiences, such as members of a particular college, class or interest group, one recurring theme was the desire for more University-wide experiences, and especially for one or two more "big signature events" that cross all four classes. They suggested and we agree that a robust on-campus social structure would include many college-based events (some for all four classes and some attracting students from other colleges) and many "niche" events, but also would include some large events. Toward this end we offer the following observations and recommendations:

  • There seems to be widespread interest in having at least one additional major concert each year with headliner talent. This was affirmed this past year when McCarter Theatre booked Trey Anastasio, formerly of the rock band Phish, into Richardson Auditorium, and student interest far exceeded the ticket supply. The working group would like to see greater use of Princeton Stadium and Weaver Track, and wondered if these sites could serve as attractive outdoor venues for such concerts.
  • There was also interest in one or more on-campus, all-student dances each year, sponsored by the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) or other student organizations. One student wrote: "I wish they had more USG-sponsored parties. At my old school, we called the student council-hosted parties 'mixers' (because people mix and mingle I guess). We would have a few mixers during the year with different themes ('80s, jungle, futuristic, etc.), food, decorations and music. The parties were never super elaborate and didn't require an enormous budget … but they were still fun chances to socialize. And they were open to everyone." Historically Princeton had such dances, sponsored by the Daily Princetonian, the junior class and other organizations. These events could provide opportunitiesfor dancing and socializing that now are almost entirely provided only by the eating clubs.
  • The working group was pleased to learn about a plan this spring for a "battle of the bands" along with a campus-wide picnic during one of the weekends for Princeton Preview, the annual hosting program for admitted students and their families. This seemed an excellent opportunity to bring students from all over campus together in the early days of spring for festivity and fellowship, while also addressing one of the concerns about the Preview that we discuss below. Unfortunately the plan did not materialize, but we encourage similar initiatives in the coming years.
  • If a battle of the bands, showcasing Princeton talent, occurred during Preview it could become a "signature event" — something that becomes uniquely identified with Princeton. We encourage the development of one or two other signature events each year, along with such current events as the Pre-rade and the dodgeball tournament, and in the case of the Pre-rade we wonder whether adding a concert/dance to the end of the dinner would encourage even greater interaction among freshmen and between freshmen and students in the other classes. Another thought we had for a signature event would be an annual "birthday party" complete with music, dancing and a special cake. Princeton was founded on Oct. 22, and that could be an excellent time of year for such a party.
  • Other suggestions regarding campus-wide events included encouraging more attendance at athletic events (several commentators noted the "Jadwin Jungle" era when students in specially designed T-shirts regularly attended men's basketball games in Jadwin Gym); holding at least one additional campus-wide social event in the fall when freshmen are still learning how to navigate Princeton socially; and, as one student put it: "There need to be more random fun campus-wide games like assassin or capture the flag or paintball."
  • In planning for large-scale events on campus, some students asked whether special efforts should be made to encourage multiple sponsors to take into account a broad range of interests and perspectives.

Smaller-Scale Events

Most social life does not occur in large or University-wide settings, and one of the strengths of Princeton is the ability of students to find a niche and then create an event or organization to cater to their interest. Some years ago a Princeton admission video cited an entering student who wanted to create a Go Club; he did, and it continues to attract students and others who enjoy playing this ancient Chinese board game. Similarly, several years ago students took the initiative in organizing a Quidditch match and, within a year, the residential colleges were competing in an on-campus tournament and Princeton students were traveling to Middlebury College to compete on a "national" basis. For many students, social life revolves around their extracurricular activities, and we encourage the University to continue to work with students to support a broad range of interests. There are also a number of social activities in the colleges, such as Wilson's Black Box, that have attracted campus-wide followings, and we encourage the colleges to provide more of these kinds of opportunities.[2] Princeton clearly offers students a wide range of social options, and as one student said: "I like having more options than time to explore them all."

At the same time, a number of concerns were expressed and suggestions put forward, including the following:

  • There was an interest in more events designed to increase bonding within each class.
    • Some students suggested more class-wide programming for sophomores. One student said: "The sophomores are not a part of an eating club yet and are quite frankly ignored by the residential colleges. Why don't we have class unity assemblies like at the beginning of freshman year?"
    • Junior year introduces the challenge of meeting the social needs of students who don't live in the colleges or join an eating club. As one student said: "Once junior year hits, there are two main types of entertainment at Princeton: the Street or video games. If you enjoy neither, tough luck." While we don't think this is a fair characterization, we do want to say more in a moment about upperclass students who are not in colleges or clubs.
    • Seniors also expressed interest in more activities that bring them together as a class prior to the end-of-year events associated with Reunions and Commencement. One student said: "Pub Night at Winberie's and karaoke at Ivy Inn have been great variations to the social scene as a senior when the Street starts to get a little old." Another also commented on the Pub Night: "The best social experience that I have had in recent memory is our Senior Pub Night. It was great to feel like we were bonding as a class and to see people who I might have lost touch with. The best part of the night was that a large portion of the class was in a room that was rented out solely for our benefit, and the space itself encouraged conversation as opposed to passing chitchat."
  • As already suggested, there was considerable interest in providing better support for juniors and seniors who are not in the colleges or clubs. Some suggested greater outreach to these students from the colleges. Some suggested group shopping trips, independent study breaks and better community/social spaces in the upperclass dorms to facilitate social gatherings of students who live in those dorms. One of the defining characteristics of Princeton is that many juniors and seniors live in two social circles: their "club friends" and their "dorm friends." While there are ample opportunities for club friends to socialize, it is much more difficult for dorm friends to do so. Finally, some suggested continuing efforts to improve Campus Club's attractiveness to these students.
  • One student focused on the importance of "hang out space" for students who are not in an eating club: "I'm talking about an enormous room somewhere, preferably centrally located, with crazy amounts of comfortable seating and free food and drinks. Mathey's new Writers Studio is close to what I mean but it's tiny and only open a few hours a day. Murray-Dodge is fairly close to what I'm thinking of, but it's not comfy enough and also has limited hours. The Lewis Library is actually pretty close, but you can't eat in there. Some of us need a homey place to be … and preferably unstaffed with round-the-clock hours. Eating clubs have those. … Ever consider that lonely people who aren't in clubs might also like to see a friendly face at 4 a.m.?" (The University has been adding lounges to dormitories as a way to encourage more unstructured conversation and down time.)
  • Some students suggested that the University and student organizations could do more to encourage engagement in community service as a way for students to interact with each other socially and break away from the rigors of academic life while also contributing to the well-being of others. One specific suggestion was to hold a mass volunteering event to benefit a neighboring community. Interestingly, in cooperation with the Pace Center, the eating clubs sponsored just such a mass volunteering event this spring to benefit the Food Justice Foundation in Trenton, and a group of students on campus organized a Relay for Life event during which 46 registered teams of students raised more than $23,000 for the American Cancer Society.
  • Recognizing the competitive nature of many Princeton students but also the importance of making time to play, there were a number of suggestions to organize more activities around games and other competitions, such as scavenger hunts. There were a number of suggestions to increase on-campus social programming after 10 p.m. and to offer more opportunities for social engagement outside of Thursday and Saturday nights. Some students asked whether Murray-Dodge, the International Festival and Communiversity could engage more students.
  • Finally, some students expressed great appreciation for the large and growing array of arts-related performances on campus and the many opportunities to experience performances drawn from cultures other than their own. They also expressed the hope that as the University's commitment to the arts expands, there will be even more programming that takes full advantage of the remarkable artistic talent and cultural and demographic diversity of our campus. One event that illustrates that diversity is the annual "This Is Princeton" evening of performances, and several students encouraged much greater publicity for that event so more students will know about it.

Relationships Across the Classes

While many alumni acknowledge the multiple benefits of residential colleges, they lament the lost opportunity for all freshmen to share the same dining experience at Commons and to live in dorms that include students from all four classes. Freshmen frequently talk about two competing desires: to get to know more of their classmates, but also to get to know the sophomores in their colleges and to get to know upperclass students early in their Princeton careers. As indicated earlier, students express a keen desire to learn the ropes from upperclass students, and to engage with them in ways that open doors to campus organizations and the eating clubs. This desire on the part of freshmen for mentoring by upperclass students that goes well beyond their relationships with their residential college advisers (RCAs) was cited recently by the committee that looked at issues related to women and leadership. We accept that mentoring and acculturation by upperclass students may be especially important for women, but we found the desire for these kinds of cross-class connections to be pervasive and strongly felt among men as well as women.

As stated earlier, we believe there is merit in finding additional opportunities beyond orientation week to bring freshmen together as a class. In this section we want to make several recommendations designed to address students' strong interest in getting to know students in the classes ahead of them, and to benefit from those interactions in making choices about academic, extracurricular and social options.

  • We support efforts already under way to strengthen the four-year affiliation with their residential colleges of juniors and seniors who don't live in the colleges past sophomore year. This is especially important in the two-year colleges, which don't have juniors and seniors in residence. The policies that allow all juniors and seniors to eat two meals a week at the colleges at no additional cost and that keep juniors and seniors connected to nondepartmental advisers in the colleges are helpful starting points.
    • We suggest thinking about a plan under which all juniors and seniors would "go home" once a month to their colleges, with programming that either serves their needs or allows them while "home" to engage with current members of the college as mentors and guides. As one student said: "Providing events for upperclassmen, even if they no longer live there, would foster a sense of continued community that is now completely shut off after sophomore year." Events that serve their needs could include wine and cheese gatherings with faculty and college staff, or workshops focused on such postgraduate life skills as searching for apartments, balancing budgets, paying taxes and achieving work-life balance.
    • We are told that many juniors and seniors use their former colleges as study spaces, with popular spaces including the libraries in Wilson, Rockefeller-Mathey and Whitman colleges. In addition, each college sponsors a "senior thesis boot camp" during which it provides space and food to seniors who sign up to work on their theses, particularly during spring break. It may make sense to think of more junior/senior study breaks in the colleges, with a special effort to attract independents who don't have access to study spaces in the eating clubs.
  • In a later section of this report we will discuss the role of the RCAs, but we wonder if there is a way to provide freshman RCA groups with one or two sophomore or upperclass students in addition to the RCA who serve as "sponsors" or guides in helping introduce the freshmen to other upperclass students and to campus social and extracurricular life. Princeton once had a "keyceptor" program that was intended to serve similar purposes. Each advisee group might have two such sponsors (one male, one female) whose principal responsibility is to host one or two dinners in the fall and talk about how to navigate the Princeton experience.
  • Finally, we would like to sketch out an idea that arose out of discussion about a program at Oxford University in which freshmen who live in a particular room on campus get together several times a year with all other students on campus who previously lived in that room. These "family dinners" would bring together students from multiple classes who would be likely to have quite different backgrounds and interests since the only common ground in bringing them together is that they have lived in a particular room (or corridor or entry way). We think a program along these lines is worth exploring — it would bring diverse groups of students together and it could be fun — and while it would require some administrative support to collect names and issue invitations, the cost of the program itself would be minimal since it could draw on the free meals provided to all juniors and seniors to cover the costs of the dinners.

Life in the Colleges

Overall, Princeton gets high marks for the quality of the residential experience, and students appreciate the many benefits provided by the residential colleges. We heard from many students who praised their college experience, but we also heard from many who suggested that whether because of size or architecture, and despite the best efforts of masters and staff, they perceive the colleges as aggregations of sleeping rooms, eating spaces and advisers that provide solid grounding for entering students to launch their Princeton careers, but don't fully achieve their potential as holistic communities that create strong feelings of attachment, engagement and identification. While some social life takes place in the colleges — over meals, in dorm room parties, at study breaks, in common space conversations and at occasional special initiatives like the Wilson Black Box — the colleges are not thought of as places that put a high priority on social life or "fun."

Two of the students who submitted comments to our website captured well one of the principal dilemmas that were cited by many who shared their thoughts with us. One student said: "Residential colleges seem like they're making a sort of halfway effort to build a community. The way I see it, they should either stop trying to be a community and come together to foster events for the whole campus more effectively, or they should make a bigger effort to foster bonding within residential colleges and 'zee' (advisee) groups. Another said: I would like to see a bit more mixture between the colleges and at the same time a bit more exclusivity. Something like the College Olympics at the start of the year might be a good way to achieve something like this."

We line up with the second student. On the one hand, we believe the colleges do need to schedule occasional (perhaps once weekly) meals and other events that are open only to college members as a way of creating a stronger sense of identification with the college. There is also much to be said for encouraging healthy competition among the colleges in intramurals, in events like scavenger hunts and in other ways. One student said: "There need to be more bonding things we do as a residential college. After freshman week we never really see each other since we're eating all over the place." Another said: "There is no real reason for members of one residential college to feel as if they have more in common with each other than with members of a different residential college."

At the same time, the colleges also need to have occasions when they reach out beyond their membership — to juniors and seniors and to students in other colleges — in sponsoring social activities and events that add to the overall robustness and richness of on-campus social life. We were surprised to learn that cross-college planning is uncommon, and we encourage both college staff and student leadership in the colleges to develop better mechanisms to share ideas and engage in joint planning with the other colleges — and perhaps with the eating clubs as well.

One student suggested that the colleges "become student-owned communities, in which sophomores feel connected to freshmen and upperclassmen." In our view this student makes two important points. One is that programming in the colleges is more likely to appeal to students if students are heavily involved in the programming. The other is that college councils can provide excellent opportunities for students to demonstrate leadership, resourcefulness and creativity at an early stage in their Princeton careers, including especially in the sophomore year when they are making a number of decisions about their priorities in their remaining two years on campus.

Not surprisingly, many students commented on the importance of addressing the needs of juniors and seniors who elect to live in the colleges. One said: "The University should focus on improving residential college life for juniors and seniors choosing to stay in residential colleges. RCAs are considered cool upperclassmen, but being a non-RCA in a residential college doesn't seem to be as 'cool' to people. Being an upperclassman in a residential college also seems to be an isolating experience. … I think the University should address this by having community events targeted at juniors and seniors in the residential colleges." One popular offering for upperclass students in the colleges are wine and cheese parties with the masters, some of which may be restricted to juniors and seniors currently in the colleges, but some of which may be open to previous college residents who now live in the upperclass dorms.

Some students suggested the University and the colleges do more to encourage students to take "time off." One student said: "Perhaps there are ways the University could support and facilitate opportunities that closely approximate the tremendously important experience of just sitting around a room with friends, talking about nothing. For example, I know Rocky [Rockefeller College] just started offering small subsidies for 'community events' (like buying a cake for a hall-mate's birthday). … Spending quality time with other people can't be ranked or prioritized as inferior to spending quality time with a textbook."

We want to close this section by mentioning a number of other questions and concerns that we heard about the colleges:

  • While freshman and sophomore membership in the colleges reflects the full diversity of the student body, in the junior and senior classes there are groups that are both significantly underrepresented and significantly overrepresented compared to their presence in the class. Among those overrepresented in the colleges are women (58 percent in the colleges as compared to 50 percent in the class); Hispanic students (15 percent compared to 7 percent), international students (18 percent compared to 9 percent), and students who are first in their families to go to college (21 percent compared to 9 percent). Most significantly underrepresented in the colleges are white students, who constitute only 23 percent. (International students are also overrepresented as independents, also 18 percent compared to 9 percent.)
  • Are they too large to develop a strong sense of community, and if so, should efforts be made to create subcommunities (or as one person put it, nests of communities) within the colleges, organized either around geography (particular dorms or entries) or shared interests?
  • Is there a way to create greater comparability in experiences across colleges while retaining their individual identities and creativity?
  • Is there a way for colleges to develop more "cool spaces," including spaces that are open but feel intimate, and more of a sense that they are "living" communities where students are expected to develop friendships, enjoy themselves and have fun? One example cited was a college-wide "sleepover" in Whitman College where students were invited to stay overnight in the dining hall playing board games and engaging in other similar activities.
  • Do colleges reach out effectively enough to freshmen prior to their arrival on campus, to begin creating identification with the colleges before students even arrive?
  • Should there be more programming during holiday breaks for students who don't or can't leave campus?

RCAs & OA/CA Groups

Residential college advisers (RCAs) play critical roles in welcoming freshmen to Princeton and in conveying important (some say voluminous) information about Princeton's structure, procedures and expectations. In general, students seem to appreciate their RCAs and like being assigned to zee groups with other freshmen, but many are looking for more from the program than the program delivers. The Outdoor Action (OA) and Community Action (CA) programs also get very high marks, but students ask whether more can be done to sustain the bonds formed in these intensive pre-orientation programs throughout their Princeton careers.

One specific question was whether there is a better way to integrate OA/CA groups and zee groups. Some suggested that all members of a zee group go together on an OA or CA program, while others thought one of the merits of the current arrangement is that through OA/CA groups freshmen get to know classmates in a range of colleges. Another question was whether OA/CA groups should get back together on occasion during the fall of freshman year to share experiences and seek guidance from the upperclass students who led their programs.

With respect to RCAs, two recurring questions were whether they should be asked to do more to build a sense of community in the colleges, and whether they should be asked to do more to introduce their zees to other upperclass students and Princeton's social, recreational and extracurricular life. While many students reported positive interactions with their RCAs, they did not see their RCAs as meeting the desires they were expressing to get to know juniors and seniors and to benefit from the insights and experiences of students in those classes. In an earlier section of this report we suggest mechanisms to provide connections across classes separate from the RCA relationship, but in this section we want to at least raise the question of whether the RCA role should be somewhat recast to impose greater responsibility to integrate their zees into Princeton's broader residential and social milieu.

Students also suggested that RCAs make more of an effort to interact with sophomores and to connect sophomores with the freshmen in their zee groups. (Butler College is conducting just such a pilot program next year.) They asked whether there might be merit in creating groupings of zee groups within each college that get together periodically as a way of giving freshmen exposure to another RCA or two beyond their own, and of creating bonds among freshmen at a level that is larger than a single zee group but smaller than the size of the overall college. Students also wondered whether zee groups should be brought back together on occasion in junior and senior years, again as part of a larger strategy to sustain ties between juniors and seniors and their colleges. Such a practice would also provide juniors and seniors with opportunities to renew connections with classmates who may have made different living and dining choices, and in so doing would reduce the compartmentalization that can develop in junior and senior years.

Finally, questions were asked about whether the dormitory assistants in the upperclass dorms, who currently have a building superintendant role, should be asked to play a role in building community in those dorms.

Orientation & Princeton Preview

Many students described their experiences as admitted students during Princeton Preview and their experiences as newly arrived students during freshman orientation in similar terms: They found both events heavily programmed with the transmittal of information, but strikingly short on experiences that create a sense of community or suggest that Princeton students enjoy an active social life or have fun. With respect to Princeton Preview, some students compared their Princeton experience with experiences at peer institutions, which they described as much less structured and much more enjoyable. One byproduct of the nature of Princeton's programs is reaffirmation of the perspective that campus life at Princeton is serious, and for fun one needs to look to the clubs.

We agree with students who strongly encourage a revamping of both orientation and Princeton Preview to provide more time for bonding and for fun. (The Pre-rade and picnic that follows it are an exception to the general sense of seriousness that characterizes orientation.) In addition to shifting the equilibrium toward a bit more social interaction and fun during freshman orientation, we also believe it is important to find better opportunities during orientation and shortly thereafter to bring freshmen together with upperclass students in ways that allow the upperclass students to share their insights and experiences very early in the Princeton careers of the entering students.

Final Thoughts

We would like to close this section with just a few final thoughts:

  • Many students commented on the importance of late meals at Frist (meals offered in the campus center after regular dining hall hours), and noted that they are one of few occasions on campus that bring all four classes together. Some suggested that more upperclass students be permitted to take late meals at Frist.
  • Several of the University's goals regarding social and residential life focus on the importance of getting to know students from backgrounds unlike one's own, experiencing new perspectives and seeing the world through the eyes of others. We encourage all responsible for social programming on campus and in the colleges to help the University achieve these goals.
  • We want to note that many aspects of on-campus social life fall under the purview of the USG, class governments, college councils and other student organizations. We hope there will be student-initiated responses to the observations and recommendations we have made in this report, and we encourage the relevant administrative offices to make sure student organizations have the guidance and resources they need to contribute effectively to the improvement of on-campus social life.
  • We don't know exactly what to make of it, but we were struck in several of our conversations about the impact on social life of cell phones and texting. As others have observed, these technologies are a double-edged sword: they facilitate social life by making it easy for friends to stay in touch and make plans, but they also create technological isolation where students are so focused on electronic conversation that they fail to engage in direct conversation with those around them. One of the working group members, coach Susan Teeter, recounted her decision to prohibit cell phones and other electronic devices when the women's swim team travels. In response to a question from the team about what they were supposed to do without access to these devices on their trips, her answer was: "Talk with each other."
  • One of the residential college activities that many students cited fondly was arrangements for trips to New York. While the focus of our work was on-campus social life, we would like to encourage more students to make greater use of the enormous social, cultural and intellectual resource that is New York. Transit back and forth is relatively easy by train, but there also may be occasions when chartered buses make sense. We also would encourage campus groups, including the colleges, to look into potentially attractive group rates at the Princeton Club of New York or other hotels for stays of two or three nights in New York during break periods, with programming that could revolve around theater, music, museums or many other activities.
  • Finally, many students expressed strong approval of the many residential and social options that are available to students, but also expressed a desire for more guidance in how to make decisions among the many choices. We believe some of the answer is in doing a better job of connecting freshmen with upperclass students. But there also may be merit in doing more to assist sophomores as they make major academic, residential and social choices and in making sure that written materials and websites are as accurate, up-to-date and helpful as possible.

[2] One student wrote the following: "My typical social month involves going to the Street once or twice a week, going to see a movie at the Garden Theater on a Friday night, and hanging out with my friends on some Thursday nights. I'll throw in some random events too, like a dance show or late night skate night (which I think is a really good idea and I love the posters). … To enhance it, it'd be great to have a place where a good deal of people routinely hang out, where something was routinely happening. … Recently it seems like the residential colleges have been holding bigger and bolder events, like Casino Night, Roaring '20s night, etc."