A new alum reflects on the magic of four years on campus

Photo: Doug Mastroianni

It’s funny to be asked to tell your story when you’re 23 years old. I feel I have less of a story than a prologue. But my hope is to give you an example of the kind of life that can happen at Princeton, thanks to the efforts of thousands of people whom I will never get to meet.

I come from a very small, Catholic town in Ohio where our idea of diversity is (heaven forbid) meeting a Lutheran. When I got my housing assignment and my roommates and I started emailing each other, I found out that I would be living in a quad with one Protestant, one Muslim, and one Jew. It sounds like the setup for a bad joke; instead, it was the setup for an incredible friendship. We roomed together again sophomore year, and we’d still be living together if three of us hadn’t gone on to be residential-college advisers. One also went on to be president of the largest Christian group on campus, and another went on to be president of the largest Muslim group on campus. Those guys shared a bunk bed for two years, and we used to stay up until 4 a.m. talking about the deep things that seem really important when you’re an undergraduate, like religion and free will and Breaking Bad. All that, to me, is magic.

Every year brought more. Late one night in my freshman year, a bunch of people in red shirts showed up screaming and banging on my door and told me to start running; I was halfway across campus before I realized I got into Quipfire!, an improv group that would introduce me to another circle of my closest friends and send me on tours across the United States. A few weeks later, I went to Bermuda during fall break with a freshman seminar to do research on the effects of temperature on coral and the effects of sun on skin. (Our preliminary results suggest that you get a tan.)

When I was a sophomore, I thought I might like to research the psychology of humor, and Princeton professor Susan Fiske, a prominent social psychologist, took interest in my silly idea. Two years later I’m writing up our results for publication. The next summer, some members of Quipfire! had the idea of starting a late-night talk show; three months later, we had filled the theater with people for our first episode and had to turn away many more. We call it All-Nighter, and we have done 14 episodes this year. In a highlight of the first season, I went head to head in a pun-off with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Professor Paul Muldoon.

Little by little, however, I came to understand that some parts of Princeton are beyond the reach of this magic. When sophomore spring rolled around, I found myself a participant in an antiquated system of social stratification we call eating clubs, which exist only because we didn’t build the dining halls big enough a century ago. As I walked outside last October, I saw my classmates in suits rushing to info sessions, and realized we’re funneling so many seniors into investment-banking jobs that I can’t tell whether Princeton is in the service of all nations, or in the service of the financial sector. And during my junior year, as a residential adviser, I found myself comforting, counseling, and bringing more students to McCosh infirmary — we called it “McCoshing” — than I want to recall. I realized that across campus, there must be hundreds of students — or maybe more — struggling silently with depression, anxiety, and a whole host of mental-health issues. Despite recent efforts to de-stigmatize psychological counseling, this still remains one of the most pressing issues facing our university today.

Those moments when Princeton’s spell was broken, however, are when I grew the most. I was on the verge of tears when I got my first writing-seminar draft back and realized I’d have to start from scratch, but it lit a fire in my belly to learn how to write at a college level, and I gulped down the seminar curriculum and became a Writing Center fellow the next semester. That story replayed itself over and over again for four years. From trying to dodge grade deflation to agitating for reform in the eating-club system, it was the un-charmed aspects of Princeton that stretched me to the breaking point and left me stronger.

So I appreciate all of those enchanted elements of Princeton life. I appreciate that Princeton flew me to Austin one weekend to present my thesis at a psychology conference and paid for all the barbecue I ate. I appreciate how in a one-week span I was in the same room as an Academy Award-winning director and a Nobel laureate. And I certainly appreciate that Princeton gave me the guidance to win a Rhodes scholarship.

But I love Princeton for the distinctly un-magical reasons. I love it because it stressed me, tested me, and nearly bested me. I love it because it plucked me out of Nowhere, Ohio, from a town and a family that never had sent someone to an Ivy League school, and challenged me to prove I was the person I claimed to be on my application. And I love it because, even in my final semester here, it’s teaching me that I don’t have to be that person to be worthwhile.

I don’t know, and I may never know, about the millions of things that had to happen so I could live this life. Just this morning, I realize, I ate in a dining hall where someone had made muffins for me to eat, I got an email saying that the money I made from giving campus tours had been deposited into my bank account, and I walked to class on paths that someone had shoveled and salted. I don’t know who the wizards were who made all that, and much more, happen. But given the life they’ve enabled me to have at Princeton, I couldn’t be more thankful to them for working their magic. 

Adam Mastroianni ’14, a psychology major from Monroeville, Ohio, will attend Oxford University next year as a Rhodes scholar.

This essay was adapted from a talk to Princeton staff members in February.