Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

January 29, 2003:

There's no collegiate gothic in Cairo

Yearning for green among the dunes of Egypt

It might surprise some readers to learn that Princeton charges its students a fee of $2,650 for the privilege of studying abroad for a semester. According to the information provided by the Study Abroad Office, this fee covers the expense of maintaining the absent student's file ...an entity that I visualize as a small manila envelope ... at Princeton.

It goes without saying that I could have put that manila folder up at the Nassau Inn indefinitely for the same amount of money, or that I could have stuck the $2,650 in a checking account, allowed it to accrue interest, and presented it to Princeton in my dotage. And then the grateful university would have named a capstone after me, or perhaps a section of flagstone.

It's a good thing I'm heading back to Princeton in two weeks, because then I'll really be getting my $17,000 worth, or whatever the going rate for a semester is these days. It's a good thing that the campus is so pretty; I chose Princeton, after all, almost entirely on the basis of aesthetics. "It tricks you," my friend Sarah has often said about Princeton. "It's so beautiful it lures you in."

Even after a semester spent amidst the stunning architecture of Cairo, I still long for collegiate gothic, still pine for (East) Pyne. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but I'm convinced that the principal culprit was the library at the American University in Cairo, an edifice that owes its inspiration to the European Fascist regimes of the 1930s. A.U.'s library gave me the creeps, and made me long for cold winter evenings spent in the basement of the infinitely more gracious Firestone.

Similarly, my remoteness from the latest campus gossip has made me eager to return to Old Nassau. I haven't set foot on campus since last May, and I'm so out of the loop that the remainder of this column will be cobbled together entirely from second-hand hearsay and pieces of gossip that have reached me ... first in Egypt, and now in Missouri ... from my Princeton friends.

Reading Period, that time of the year when Princeton students try to cram a semester's worth of studying into a two-week period, ended on January 14 with the arrival of Dean's Date. Classes don't meet during Reading Period, and so there's even more time than usual for day trips into New York, watery beer on the Street, and the kind of hijinks that I never could have gotten away with in Egypt. A certain notorious eating club staged its own Reading Period challenge after one club member boasted that he could successfully complete a video game in the time it would take another member to finish a gallon of ice cream. A third member declared that he could eat the entire $1 menu at Wendy's before the other two members had completed their respective challenges. The e-mail sent by one of the event's organizer's read: "This will be an event of gross abundance not to miss. If you think that you have a difficult challenge that can be accomplished, go for it. Any takers to drink a 12-pack of beer, smoke a whole pack of cigarettes, eat four hoagies from Hoagie Haven with cheese fries, two pizzas from Victor's, 100 Buffalo wings from Chuck's, a gallon of whole milk, or another difficult challenge, bring it on. Why are we doing this??? Because we can and because it's Reading Period."

Reading Period is also the time of year when fall semester junior independent work ... the so-called "J.P." ... is due. Most of the humanities departments require a J.P. in the fall and in the spring, although length and topic restrictions vary considerably from one department to another. As a Near Eastern studies major, my choice of topic was basically unlimited, although I can't say that I received much encouragement for my first proposal, a plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by partitioning Jerusalem and installing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as its dual mayors. Eventually, I decided to write about British hydrological policies in early 20th-century Egypt; my friend Sarah, an erstwhile coxswain and current major in the same department, wrote about the rights of the Uighurs, an ethnic minority in Western China. Sarah, like the rest of us, is glad to be finished with her junior paper: "I hate the Uighurs now. The Uighurs made me write a terrible J.P. Anyway, I'm off to analyze wife-beating in the Arabian Nights."

My friend Julia, a history major from Oregon, just wrapped up her J.P. about a small piano museum in New York City. Julia was required to research and write about a collection of some sort, and since she's a music fiend, writing about pianos was an obvious choice: "I have to explain why the French were too backward to make pianos with iron frames, thus ensuring the economic demise of the French piano and its drastic loss of world market share." Now that she's finished her J.P., Julia is currently working on two term papers, one about the rights of trans-species couples, and one about a man who's planning to amputate his feet with a guillotine ... he wants better prosthetics than Medicare will pay for ... and broadcast the procedure over the Internet. Meanwhile, Winston, who was in the same history seminar as Julia, wrote his J.P. about Peter the Great's collection of circus freaks; Chris, following in the literary and piscine tradition of John McPhee '53, wrote about fly fishing collections.

But even though spring semester means a whole new round of J.P.s and inane term paper topics, I'll be glad to get back to Princeton. I miss the greasy French toast at Terrace, the rigorous academic climate, and the heckling that goes on at Saturday night basketball games. I miss Hoagie Haven. Most of all, I miss my friends. It'll be good to be home.


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu