April 24, 2002: On the Campus

Making an impact
A senior reflects on the power to change her world

By Liriel Higa ’02

The most important lesson I have learned at Princeton has been to take myself seriously.

During my freshman year, I took part in Professor Toni Morrison’s Atelier. The course, which Professor Morrison began in 1994, brings to campus guest artists from different performing arts for an intensive, in-residence collaborative effort with each other and with students. The year I participated, I had the opportunity to dance with the American Ballet Theatre’s studio company.

In our final meeting with Professor Morrison, she asked us for suggestions on how to improve the course. Before I could reflect on to whom I was talking, I piped up: Although I very much enjoyed the Atelier, I had many friends with modern dance backgrounds. Perhaps, I suggested to the Nobel Laureate, you could have a modern dance Atelier in the future instead of just repeating the ballet one?

Instead of taking offense at my ungratefulness for that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Professor Morrison agreed. As it turned out, she was friends with Mikhail Baryshnikov and was considering asking him to teach a future Atelier.

Professor Morrison’s serious consideration of my comment helped me realize that I can effect meaningful change if I want to and if I try hard enough.

I came to Princeton as a retired rhythmic gymnast who still had the performance bug – but there was no group for rhythmic gymnasts. A couple of friends and I founded Muse Performing Arts Company in order to provide a venue for unique talents and collaborations that don’t neatly fit into any other student group. Muse acts have included Irish and Indian dance, student-written original scenes and poetry, mime, student films, kung fu demonstrations, and juggling, and we will be sponsoring both a stand-up comedy show and an all-girls rendition of Romeo and Juliet this semester.

I was also involved in the movement to secure comprehensive sign language classes. Last year, a few students and I presented the dean of the college with a petition signed by hundreds of students supporting a more intensive class than was offered at the time. Dean Dobin took care of the financial side, but he has left the administration of the classes largely up to us. His receptiveness and trust and the success of the classes lead me to hope that they will be offered for credit one day.

Of course, there are many needs of the university that I didn’t tackle. The undercurrent of hostility toward homosexuality is disturbing — the disparaging phrase “that’s so gay” is as commonplace as it was in junior high school. The divide between undergraduate and graduate students, as exemplified by the Grad College’s physical separation from the rest of campus, has always struck me as a terrible loss for both parties. I don’t understand why the Third World Center didn’t change its name long ago. Princeton has an exceptionally generous financial aid program, yet I’d be curious to see whether there is a correlation (and probable causation) between financial background and membership in an eating club.

Journalism has proved another satisfying outlet for my energies. After my PAW article on alcohol and sexual harassment (December 19), I received an e-mail from a current high school student, Eleanor Barkhorn ’06, who had just been accepted to Princeton via early decision. Eleanor thanked me for opening her eyes to the darker side of college life after weeks of congratulations. Worried I might have soured her on Princeton, I replied with a lengthy defense of all things wonderful about Old Nassau. Eleanor reassured me that she was grateful for the knowledge and told me that my article had inspired her to examine sexual harassment at her school and make it the topic of her English final.

When it comes my turn to march out FitzRandolph Gate, I will do so with trepidation about my future — yet also with eagerness to move on. Most important, I will do so confident that future generations of Princetonians like Eleanor will ensure that Princeton continues to improve to meet the needs of the entire university community.

Liriel Higa ’02 is putting off her job search until after her thesis is due.

PAW ONLINE: Zach Pincus-Roth ’02 muses about professors, fame, and mentoring at On the Campus Online.


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