June 5, 2002: On the Campus

Paradise lost

Paranoia and pestilence invade America’s “pleasantest country club” — and the pay’s not great anymore, either

By Abhi Raghunathan ’02

Photo: Uncertainty has marked the final year at Princeton for the Class of 2002. (Photo by ricardo barros)

The atmosphere of upheaval on campus — think construction zones — suits the end of this school year well. It has been a traumatic time at Princeton. Most of my friends are now more wary, less certain that following all the rules will inevitably lead to good things. This may not seem like a revelation, but consider the America in which most of us grew up. My classmates and I knew only prosperity and peace before the economic downturn and September 11. Recessions had been relegated to the history books about a year before I began my freshman year of college.

So what did it feel like to be at this Princeton, the one that existed before the bubble burst? “There never was, I suppose, in the history of the world a time when the sheer vulgar fatness of wealth, without any kind of aristocratic elegance to redeem it, was so obtrusive as in those years before 1914. The extraordinary thing was the way in which everyone took it for granted that this oozing, bulging wealth of the English upper and upper-middle classes would last forever, and was part of the order of things,” wrote George Orwell in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.”

He could have been describing Princeton at the turn of this century. It was impossible to get away from money or the obsession with money for much of my time here. Students moonlighted as CEOs, running dot-coms from their dorm rooms; some of them made it big. A big chunk of the senior class thought a Princeton diploma guaranteed a position at an investment bank and a hefty signing bonus. Money was everywhere. It dominated conversations, it was the soundtrack we danced to at the eating clubs — since most pop and hip-hop celebrated the new affluence.

Then the party started to die down. The economy began to soften in my junior year. Employers stopped fighting over us, and signing bonuses became harder to land. Some seniors who had shipped out to Wall Street with a big smile and a bigger paycheck came back with nervous frowns and stories of downsizing and layoffs. Some of my friends hoped that the good times would return, but found that dream hard to sustain after they were battered by dozens of rejection letters.

Our senior year began with the sounds of CNN instead of MTV. The economy kept getting worse, and life in Princeton became psychologically taxing when central New Jersey became a focal point of the anthrax investigation. There were whispers of terrorists in Mercer County. Local post offices closed after spores were discovered; anthrax scares briefly shut down Frist and the Woodrow Wilson School. I think Princeton stopped being what F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 called “the pleasantest country club in America” around the time students started getting irradiated mail.

This spring we were dealt another blow, a final indignity that recalls the Book of Job: Hundreds of students were struck with pinkeye. We got a plague along with our paranoia.

I guess it’s not surprising, then, that a lot of my friends are uncertain about what to do next. More students seem to be considering graduate school; a growing number say any job will do. There are still people going to Wall Street, but they don’t have the same easy confidence that students had in past years, probably because they’ve seen their friends get laid off and tossed aside. The people I know who managed to get high-paying jobs are an understandably anxious bunch.

I don’t think many of us believe in a fairy-tale future of wealth and goodness anymore. A Princeton diploma is no longer a guarantee of a happy ending to our lives, but a symbol of the end of our innocence. Words like responsibility and struggle are part of our vocabulary again. We have all grown up.

Abhi Raghunathan ’02 will begin work at the Washington Post after graduation.



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