Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

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


July 7, 2004:

So long...it’s been real
And, yes, I learned a lot

This is the final "Raising Kate" column, an occasion I have been both anticipating and dreading for the last four years. I'm writing it from Cairo, the locale that was the inspiration for many articles a year and a half ago, when I studied abroad for a semester. This time I'm here for seven weeks, taking part in an intensive Arabic program at the American University in Cairo.

Regular e-mails sent to the local American community warn of the importance of being vigilant, although the Egyptians I've met have been remarkably forgiving, given what's going on in another ancient capital 800 miles to the east. Among the most tolerant are the young men who hang out on the Nile bridges and whose names are built on the H-M-D consonant root that is the basis for most monikers in this part of the world. Mohammed, Ahmed, and Mahmoud — as some of them are inevitably called — do not discriminate on the basis of national origin or foreign policy. They like all young women, Egyptian, American, or otherwise. No, the real dangers in Egypt go beyond nationality, and come from speeding taxis and from the irascible donkeys and aggressive geese that claim the Cairo streets as their own. Not that I would have been much safer back in New Jersey; on Monday, I got an e-mail from Donald Reichling, director of public safety, informing the Princeton community that a black bear had been sighted on the back lawn of Forbes College.

Would that the bear had made its appearance three weeks earlier, in time for the P-rade, where I held an orange placard reading "Rumsfeld Resign: Princeton in the Nation's Service and in the Service of all Nations." The result was that two days before Commencement, I was confronted by the "how dare you rain on my P-rade" attitude of entitlement that I have tried for four years to convince myself represented a stereotype of Princeton rather than the reality. A ferocious, ursine force might have done a lot to change that.

First there was the blond woman — and five minutes later, a male classmate wearing Nantucket Red plaid pants — who told me that my sign was "really inappropriate" for the P-rade. Then there was my British classmate from freshman year geology who asked me to put down my sign because it was making people feel bad or, if I didn't want to do that, to at least move away from him. Someone else told me that a 50-year reunion only comes once in a person's lifetime, and that Donald Rumsfeld ’54 should be able to come back to Reunions and stroll around in his peach beer jacket unperturbed.

Mine was, of course, not the only sign in protest. There were members from some of the earliest classes in the P-rade who carried notebook-paper sized signs reading "Down with Bush" and whose faces dissolved into gleeful wrinkles when they were cheered by onlookers. Someone else in my class carried a sign reading "At Least Rummy Isn't Our Real Grandfather" — the Class of 1954 is the grandparent Class of 2004 — and the handshakes and thumbs up our signs received far outnumbered the boos and nasty comments. Nor were such signs, regardless of what detractors said, inappropriate for the P-rade, an event which has a tradition of protest. Any visitor to the Seely G. Mudd Manuscript Library will notice the vintage P-rade photographs of graduates and alumni carrying placards for women's rights, civil rights, an end to the Vietnam War.

Princeton's motto, "Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations," is something I believe in fervently, even though I don't usually buy into slogans. It is something I believe in, even though my university's — now my alma mater's — motto represents a statement of Princeton's potential that is, as yet, unfulfilled. I'm not a pacifist. I'm not someone who thinks that graduating seniors going into investment banking or consulting are selling their souls. There are many ways to help, and making money does not preclude one from volunteering one's time or assets to elicit change. But I do think there are a lot of people graduating from Princeton who are falling short of the university's motto.

The day after the P-rade, as I sat with my parents and watched the Baccalaureate simulcast in McCosh 10, a classmate I had met for the first time the day before told me that even though he didn't necessarily agree with the message on my sign, he had been wrong to criticize me for carrying it. And then he shook my hand.

It goes without saying that in four years at Princeton I've seen people do a lot of impressive things, a fact that owes itself to Fred Hargadon's talents as dean of admissions and to the incredible resources that Princeton bestows on its chosen few. But what impressed me the most between 2000 and 2004 was what my classmate said the day after the P-rade. It takes a big person to say something like that. I'd like to think that Princeton has given me the confidence and grace to admit when I'm wrong; the reality is that I don't know if I could have done the same thing.  I'm proud to have gone to school with someone who can.

The question that I am most often asked, as a newly minted Princeton alumna, is if I made the right decision about college, and if, four years later, I'm glad I decided to go to Princeton.

The answer is yes.

I would like to thank my editor of four years, Lolly O'Brien, and Jane Martin, PAW's former editor, for hiring me. I would like to thank Marilyn Marks, PAW's current editor, for giving me a share in the "On the Campus" beat. I would like to thank Fred Hargadon for saying YES! I would like to thank my parents for supporting my college education, both financially and emotionally. And I would like to thank you for reading.


You can still reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu