PAW asked Angela Wu ’12, one of our On the Campus writers for the last three years, to document the days that led to Commencement and alumna-hood.
SATURDAY, JUNE 2
5 p.m.: For nearly three hours, we’ve been getting better at the locomotive cheer, watching a history of Princeton pass by in the P-rade. We raise beers to the Old Guard, cheer on Princeton’s first female undergraduates, and high-five the children of alumni. Now, overturning barricades, we sprint onto Poe Field.
“The only thing you can do wrong now is not wake up for graduation,” says my friend Alex Tait ’12.
There is, however, much to do. After the P-rade, I cross University Place to the 2 Dickinson St. Vegetarian Co-op — “2D” — a pink house where 50 students, including me, cook and eat together. At the 2D alumni reunion, I find friends playing the fiddle and Uilleann pipes and kids jumping on a trampoline. 2D is kind of a quirky place — one alumnus described it as “another country, separate from the mainland of Princeton”— and that’s why I love it. Later that night, I visit the 30th-reunion class, where a train of alumni is snaking around the tent. One of the dancers is my freshman-year residential adviser, Bryan Berry ’09, who spots me and yells, “I told you you’d make it!”
SUNDAY, JUNE 3
12:30 p.m.: My phone buzzes with an email from Associate Dean Thomas Dunne, advising that we iron our gowns before Baccalaureate.
No time for that. I rip the gown out of its packaging and meet my friends on Cannon Green. There’s surprisingly little time for reflection this weekend. Most of our time is spent herding family members, packing up what we’ve collected over four years, and trying not to be late.
I make it to Baccalaureate in time. Financial journalist Michael Lewis ’82 makes an appropriate speaker — after all, my classmates and I entered Princeton at the onset of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Lewis’ tale of how he became “rich and famous” by having one lucky break after another is reassuring to a new crop of graduates uncertain about their future. But his real message is that luck — the good fortune that landed us at Princeton, for example — is arbitrary, and comes with a responsibility to the less fortunate.
“You are the lucky few,” he says.
After dinner with my parents and boyfriend, I find that friends have saved me a place on the steps for the Step Sing. Though we mumble through “The Orange and the Black,” we nail “Don’t Stop Believing,” the song by the group Journey that feels like Princeton’s anthem.
MONDAY, JUNE 4
9:47 a.m.: As we start to gather for Class Day, we have the same question: “If this isn’t severe weather, what is?” Despite promises to move indoors in the case of “severe weather,” Class Day still will be held on Cannon Green, in a downpour.
“This is what we’ll remember at our 50th reunion,” promises Samantha Hantman ’12, as Dave Mendelsohn ’12 tracks the storm from his phone.
“I think we’re just going to sit in the rain,” someone says, sighing.
And that’s what we do, creating a sea of ponchos punctuated by the occasional umbrella. In our own bit of luck, the rain lets up shortly after the ceremony begins.
Actor Steve Carell, the keynote speaker, shares the advice his parents gave him after his own graduation: “They said something like, blah blah blah, follow your dreams, blah blah blah. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but I didn’t go to law school.”
But the best speech of the weekend comes from President Tilghman, who cracks jokes about Firestone carrels, Occupy Princeton, and the University’s new fraternity and sorority rush rules. “Like Peter Pan’s Neverland, Princeton will always be a refuge from the adult world,” she concludes, “ever ready to welcome you home each year to march behind the banner of the Class of 2012.”
7:30 p.m.: Now that Lahiere’s is closed, the go-to restaurants when parents are visiting are Mediterra and Blue Point Grill. For once, I’ve thought ahead and made a reservation at the latter, a seafood restaurant on Nassau Street — but for the wrong day. So we trudge to Tiger Noodles, the Chinese place down the street. When my mother assures me that she really wanted noodles anyway, I’m reminded that my parents always will be on my side.
After dinner, we head to Senior Prom in Jadwin Gym. Inside, it feels as though parents have been invited to a high school dance. A brassy band plays over my attempts to introduce my friends and parents. My friends and I gather for a picture, and when we contemplate the possibility that we will not see each other again, I tear up.
TUESDAY, JUNE 5
9 a.m.: I wake up and remember that I owe $12 in late fees to Firestone Library. What if Princeton holds my diploma? I’m supposed to meet my friends in half an hour, so I take the risk.
At 10:25, bells start ringing. “Let’s graduate,” says my friend Leo Shaw ’12. We graduated from middle school together, too, and I’m glad he’s sitting next to me. We spot the name of Aretha Franklin, an honorary-degree recipient, in the Commencement program. Seniors crane their necks to find the singer, who receives the loudest cheers.
President Tilghman revisits the Opening Exercises address she made to us freshman year, when she emphasized that we shouldn’t think of our education as preparation for a specific career. “That was then,” she says at Commencement. “This is now, four years after one of the most significant downturns in U.S. economic history.”
Downturns always lead to a push for more “goal-oriented education,” she says. But Princeton, she says, still is meant to provide a liberal-arts education — and, as valedictorian Nathaniel Fleming reminds us, to teach engineers lessons stemming from ancient history, and novelists lessons of neuroscience.
After a halfhearted tossing of caps but some enthusiastic batting of a beach ball, it’s over. “I wonder if Aretha sang ‘Old Nassau,’” someone whispers.
According to Princeton lore, you won’t graduate if you walk through FitzRandolph Gate before Commencement. I had done it only once — and then, I tripped through it. I feel the anticipation in the crowd as we finally stream out of the gate.
My diploma awaits at Mathey College, despite the outstanding fees. I head to the library to pay my debt. I am not the only one. “People have been coming in all day, and you should have seen the register from yesterday — it was crazy,” says the man at the library counter. “I don’t know where this myth that you won’t graduate comes from, but keep it going, because it makes people pay their fines!”
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 6
“I’m told you’re meant to be excited, perhaps even relieved, and maybe all of you are,” Michael Lewis had told us on Sunday, speaking about his own departure from campus. “I wasn’t. I was totally outraged. Here I’d gone and given them four of the best years of my life, and this is how they thanked me for it — by kicking me out.”
I sigh as I roll my suitcase out of my empty room. I’m not ready to leave campus forever, either. I am ready for the “real world,” and I’m fortunate to have a job and an apartment waiting for me. But by the time my flight lands in Los Angeles, I have one song stuck in my head: Goin’ back, goin’ back, goin’ back to Nassau Hall ...