Deer graze on campus while most students are away.
Arika Harrison ’21
“I’m not ‘at Princeton’ in any way I would have defined that phrase before this year”

Every Monday and Thursday I put my saliva sample in a drop box to be tested for COVID-19. I reserve a few masked, distanced hours in either Firestone or Frist, or perhaps I pick up food from the takeout dining hall. Otherwise, I’m in my room, watching from my windows as herds of deer roam campus in the absence of humans. That’s the sum total of campus life right now.

Living at Princeton is certainly not the lively, exciting experience it was for me during my first three years here. There is no music from the dorms on Friday and Saturday nights. There are no random interactions with friends. There are no club events with free food. It’s uneventful and, if you’re not lucky enough to have friends living in Princeton, quite lonely. As a senior, campus means seeing the places where I will never again have a Frosh Week, a Triangle show, a Dean’s Date, Lawnparties. Princeton is still home to me, but not in the way it was before. 

For those of us on campus and beyond, the real loss we are grieving is the college experience we expected to have. The feeling among my class is especially bleak; our numbers have significantly dwindled due to gap years, and many of us remaining have accepted that 2 ¾ years of Princeton is all we are likely to get. Even on campus, we are not getting any more Princeton than anyone else. Campus is not really campus right now. It’s just a collection of mostly empty buildings.

Many of my friends have taken this opportunity to move into an apartment together somewhere other than campus. A few are somewhere in central New Jersey, a few in Philadelphia and New York. The main reason for this is usually something along the lines of “it’s killing me to live with my parents again.” Still, none of them are having the exciting and social college life they’d hoped for, with their friends scattered and most of their interactions virtual.

While the changes to our college experience are vast, the biggest impact of COVID is perhaps yet to come, as we graduate into a devastated and uncertain job market. Everything is still unsettled, and many industries and organizations have stopped hiring indefinitely. Even some graduate school programs have stopped accepting students. Many of us feel not only the loss of our senior year of college, but also the fear of unemployment come June, as we broaden our search to industries we might not have considered before in hopes of finding a job.

Although this is a challenging experience full of loss and anxious uncertainty, in many ways, this year is better preparation for “real life” than any I’ve had at Princeton. For everyone, no matter where in the world, the Princeton experience is now DIY. There are no ready-made club events or dining halls or nights on the Street or recruiters on campus excited to offer you a banking job. Just like in the broader world, the activities are up to you.

In the midst of this, I’ve learned how to keep up with friends despite distance and disparate responsibilities. I’ve started taking walks just to get outside and am actively looking after my mental health. In the absence of organized campus life, I’ve had to start making life for myself. And while I grieve the loss of my final year of fake young adulthood, and look forward anxiously to what happens after graduation, I remain grateful to be housed, fed, and cared for.

While I am physically on campus, I’m not “at Princeton” in any way I would have defined that phrase before this year. But, for better or worse, this is my senior year. In the spirit of college I’m learning as much as I can from the experience, even if it’s not what I could ever have imagined.

Arika Harrison ’21 is a PAW student intern.