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A letter from an alum about stress on campus

December 30, 2003

The December 17 issue grabbed me. Janet Dickerson and the article about many students needing counseling, including stress education. I wanted to capitalize the last two words. They hit me like a ton of bricks. I know all about the demands that are put on students now, and I think it’s dreadful.

My father had such a wonderful time at Princeton that when he graduated he sat down on the steps of Nassau Hall and cried at the thought of having to leave Princeton. No stress there.

I graduated from Lawrenceville cum laude, but at Princeton I was doing so poorly as a freshman that I rated an interview with the dean of freshmen, who wanted to know why, particularly, he said, as I had the third highest IQ in my class. I had no answer for him. I was completely tongue tied.

I left his office with my tail dragging. Embarrassed. I was just a kid. I could have told him what the problem was, but I didn’t have the guts. I could have told him that the instruction was so dreadfully incompetent, particularly relative to the excellent instruction at Lawrenceville, that I was bored to tears with my courses. Instead, I flunked two courses my freshman year and had to make them up at summer school.

For my entire four years at Princeton I arranged my courses so that I had no Friday afternoon classes and no Monday morning classes. This enabled me to spend every weekend in Manhattan having fun. I found that one could buy course outlines. So, despite the fact that I hardly ever cracked a book and cut many classes, I missed graduating with honors by a razor thin margin.

My point is that there is no need for stress. To a degree it is self imposed. But an institution that puts so much pressure on a student that stress becomes a problem is not to be commended. Better that students should learn that there is a solution to every problem, no matter how bad it seems at the time. One has to learn to accept misfortune — to move on and not let it get one down. Solutions — not stress.

Maybe I’m kidding myself about my lack of stress at Princeton. For many years after I got out of the army in 1946 I had a recurrent nightmare in which I dreamt that I was back at Princeton and about to go in for a final exam and the professor wouldn't let me in because he didn't know who I was. I had cut so many classes. I think it's at least 20 years since I last had that dream. It was always nice when I woke up and realized it was just a dream.

I do believe I have fairly described my academic experience at Princeton. I always root madly for our sports teams despite my indifferent academic experience. Columbia law school was much of the same. Outlines, etc. But when it came to the bar exams I passed both ends first crack out of the box while half the Law Review guys flunked. So much for intellectuals and people who love to study just for its own sake. One has to have a goal, i.e. get your degree and start your life. Degrees and so forth look great on resumes, but they don't do anything for you in a practical way.

Robert F. Little ’39
Oyster Bay, N.Y.

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