On the Campus: December 20, 1995

Going Back to Ol' Forbes

A Junior Yearns for the Community Life of Residential Colleges

My first two years at Princeton spoiled me. Forbes was my home, and though I sometimes dreaded the hike required to get to classes and back, it was worth the walk: Forbes, in the world of dormitory life, is a palace. Where else (outside of Poe Court) do you find rooms with plush carpeting and private bathrooms? And like the four other residential colleges, Mathey, Rockefeller, Wilson, and Butler, Forbes is a community in and of itself. You eat, sleep, study, and socialize within the college, and at the end of a day of classes, you go home to a "family" to which you've grown accustomed.
In providing this home, each of the colleges has its own style. Butler and Wilson stand proudly at the center of campus, representing a new direction in Princeton architecture, and gothic Rocky and Matthey have come to stand for the university's tradition. Forbes, meanwhile, may be the campus' best-kept secret. In addition to luxuriously housing underclassmen in what used to be the Princeton Inn, Forbes revels in its relative isolation-you just have to hang out there when it's too wet or cold to trek the quarter-mile to the center of campus.
Though each college has its own character, all have extracurricular facilities to satisfy almost any interest. Forbes, for example, has a weight room, a dark room, a ceramics studio, an arts-and-crafts room, a music-practice studio, a video-game / pool room, a couple of TV lounges, a cafe, and a theater (in addition to the volleyball and basketball courts outside and the golf course out back). And of course there are the common areas: the dining hall, computer cluster, piano lounge, laundry, and library.
As a junior, I appreciate my first two years in a residential college from a new perspective. I miss it. When I moved out of Forbes and into upperclass housing this fall, I was expecting a bit too much. I mean, I was expecting something. Unfortunately, my dorm is like most upperclass housing-just rooms and no more. Of the facilities I grew used to at Forbes, my dorm has only a laundry room. No common space, no art or music room, no café, no weight room. In his plans for future campus improvements, President Shapiro has attempted to address this issue, having announced plans to upgrade upperclass housing, dorm by dorm, at $1 million a shot. And to be fair, upperclass housing is not supposed to mirror the residential-college setting-three quarters of juniors and seniors join an eating club, and the "extra" stuff is supposed to be available there.
But in practice, the clubs can replace only some of what the colleges offer. In addition to sponsoring trips to sporting events, concerts, museums, and Broadway shows, the colleges host faculty lunches and other events nearly every week. The clubs do not do most of that, though they do provide a hangout where upperclassmen share meals and shoot pool. Though I've joined an eating club and enjoy it, I miss walking downstairs to breakfast and seeing friends, neighbors, and professors sharing a table and shooting the breeze in the lobby.
What the clubs don't supply is partially addressed by the vitality of campus cultural life. Regardless of students' backgrounds or their academic or extracurricular interests, there's almost always something exciting to do. Last month, politicos could catch talks by James Carville and Steve Forbes, while men and women of letters could meet critic Harold Bloom and novelist Umberto Eco. For the theater fan, there were several student productions on campus and an Athol Fugard world premiere at McCarter Theatre.
But dorms are still where many students spend most of their time studying or relaxing. The shortcomings of those dorms led a 1979 Committee on Undergraduate Life to recommend establishing five residential colleges. By 1984, undergraduate life at Princeton had changed dramatically. The colleges were alive and thriving, and first- and second-year students had a place to call their own.
The disparity between residential colleges and upperclass dorms means there is still a dramatic gap between sophomore and junior year. Sophomore year is a time for decisions: you start figuring out what direction your life might take and choose a major, an eating club (or alternative), and a group of close friends. However, once those decisions have been made and you become a junior, you're on your own.
Walking into Forbes the other day, I remembered how nice it was to have a home that was also a community with a character all its own. But I was greeted with quizzical looks-what was I doing there? Perhaps I had lost my way looking for the Dinky, the WaWa, or the Graduate College. I hadn't; I was just back to see old friends. But I no longer belonged at Forbes, and I remembered the adage, "You can't go home again."

Jeremy Caplan a junior studying at the Woodrow Wilson School, is cowriting next year's Student Guide to Princeton.