Web Exclusives: PawPlus

March 8, 2006:

Trading oak trees for ivy
A Tulane student describes her ‘semester abroad’ at Princeton

By Rosa Mathai, Tulane ’08

It seems like such a long time ago. But early on Saturday, Aug. 27, I remember piling an army of luggage into my SUV and driving toward New Orleans to begin my sophomore year at Tulane University. In the city, it seemed that nothing was amiss. The French Quarter was sunny and full of happy tourists and locals alike as I grabbed some beignets (fried French dough covered in notoriously messy powdered sugar) and coffee from the world-famous Café du Monde. But I had heard reports of Hurricane Katrina’s approach before I arrived in New Orleans, and soon came official word from local officials: I evacuated to my hometown in western Louisiana that same day.

The next day I watched television footage of the same area, now eerily derelict and pelted with wind and rain. This time, the “hurrication” (what Tulanians affectionately called the days we have off for hurricanes) wasn’t going to be an unprecedented week off from school. I would have to enroll elsewhere for the entire semester.

For the time being, there would be no powdered-sugar catastrophes at Café du Monde or free live music in the Quarter; no lively street performers joking and jiving me into watching their shows, and no free crawfish and beer near the river on Fridays. I had barely given a thought in high school to applying to colleges far from my hometown of Leesville, so figuring out a way to attend school out of state, after a year of settling into the college routine, was a new and daunting concept. But after a frantic week of contacting colleges that led to a warm welcome by telephone from President Shirley Tilghman, I prepared to trade in oak trees for ivy and become a first-time Princeton student, along with 24 other student refugees.

My studies at Princeton always had a temporary feel, partially because I understood that I could not remain in New Jersey once Tulane reopened, and partially because we Tulanians were eager to go back to New Orleans. Even as we appreciated Princeton, we were nervous to see what use we could be to a place about which we had heard only scattered reports from our friends. The fall semester at Princeton started abruptly. It was an unexpected semester of freedom that shook us from our responsibly made plans as if to tell our already maturing psyches, “Not so fast! Life is still unpredictable.” For me, coming to Princeton was something of a “semester abroad,” if you will – an academic experience that I otherwise never would have allowed myself.

Taking that chance turned out to be an excellent decision from day one. The minute I walked onto picturesque Nassau Street for the first time I was warmly welcomed by faculty and students alike, entertained in science lectures punctuated by routine explosions, and challenged by leading humanities professors whose accomplishments ranged from directing Meryl Streep to winning the National Book Award. As a Latin American studies and cellular and molecular biology major, I was easily able to further my academic goals through Princeton’s extensive curriculum. I maintained my interest in the arts and journalism by taking photos for The Daily Princetonian.

I settled into classes and tried to live out the semester as an anonymous Princetonian, but it didn’t always work out that way. Getting “outed” as a Tulane student became a running joke among our group, and it eventually happened in every one of our classes. Once found out, I was always asked how I enjoyed it at Princeton. Even before I could respond I would be issued the cautious disclaimer, “It’s great, but there’s a lot of b.s. around here.”

Contrary to the concerns of those students who looked out for me while at Princeton, I have to say that I only met kind and honest people, and encountered no pretentiousness whatsoever. I relished my status as a Tulane student at Princeton, and thoroughly enjoyed meeting students on campus. For the most part, we refugees were strangers to each other and to the area before we came to New Jersey. I had never seen anything like Princeton’s commanding castles-for-classrooms 1800s architecture, and largely spent my time walking on campus with my head inclined in awe, unaware of passersby shuffling around me to get to their classes.

Being at Princeton afforded us the opportunity to meet and bond over our pride for our home institution. In one of our rooms we had a “Wall of Fame” covered with good grades and copies of the interviews we gave to various New Jersey media, juxtaposed with dinosaur coloring-book pictures that we competitively colored. In the dorms we became notorious for taking our southerners’ love of snow perhaps a bit too far with epic snowball fights that regularly ventured indoors.

We took each other out for our birthdays on Nassau Street, and for about a month and a half we fell into what we now call “the pie-prank wars.” We stuck pies everywhere – underwear drawers, guitar cases, the foot of the bed – until a winner was declared after a pie turned up hidden in a light fixture. All in all, I suppose we were a bit of an odd crowd, but anyone who saw us knew that we worked hard and played hard, just like other Princeton students.

If I could sum up what the Tulane at Princeton experience was, I would have to say that it probably wasn’t much different from the regular Princeton experience – save for the lurking knowledge that it was all temporary, and that we were here because of one the greatest natural disasters of our era. I wasn’t a full-time Princeton student, but I too have been kept awake at 3 a.m. by the cacophonous medley of sophomores returned from a night of bickering and the Tigertones preparing for another world tour. Nowhere else will I be able to pelt friends with snowballs from an 1890s balcony until my entire right side aches; nowhere else will I be able to attend guest lectures by such varied speakers as Bill Gates and Steve Martin.

I find myself getting nostalgic as I write this during my last days here, overhearing the sounds through my window of luggage being dragged by departing students toward the Dinky. Because just as New Orleans had its unique charms, so too did Princeton.