PAW Tracks

Patricia Danielson *76 came to Princeton as an auditor, a suburban housewife and community activist who wanted to learn more about urban studies. She left five years later with a master’s degree. The University, she says, “broke every rule” for her — and in the process changed the course of her life.

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Patricia Danielson *76 during her graduate student days.
Mike Petrovic *75

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When Patricia Danielson volunteered to take part in our oral-history project at Reunions, she mentioned that she’d had an unusual journey through Princeton, which may be an understatement. Danielson, a 1976 graduate alumna in architecture and urban planning, never completed her bachelor’s degree. She came to the University as an auditor — a suburban housewife and community activist who wanted to learn more about urban studies. She left five years later with a master’s degree.

Danielson: I felt that as a member of a civic association, I didn’t know enough about planning and zoning to be able to make intelligent answers, if the press called us to find out what we were for or against. So I came up to Princeton to audit a course at the architecture school. I spoke with Henry Jandl [*37], who was the senior faculty person, and he was the gateway — he allowed me to audit a course. This was in the fall of 1971. I audited the course but I did all the work: I wrote the papers, I took the exam, I passed the course.

Second semester, I signed up for a course entitled “Transportation Policy” because we also were dealing with the new I-95 coming through our community, and I wanted to get an idea of what impact that would have on where I lived. So I signed up for that. Turned out it was a tutorial. So the professor, based upon what I was interested in, wrote a reading list. He taught me how to draft and draw in ink, on Mylar. And that was my first year — for which I paid nothing because at the time, there was no policy for auditing in the architecture school. It was like auditing in a medical school: doesn’t happen.

But the following year, I spoke with the dean of the architecture school, who realized I was there. And he suggested that I talk with Dr. Mary Bunting.

Bunting, the former president of Radcliffe College, had come to Princeton as a special assistant to President William Bowen *58. One of her projects was to identify women who’d fallen through the cracks educationally.

Danielson: She said, “Do you realize that the courses you were taking were grad courses?” I really didn’t. I didn’t know. She said, being that you’ve been taking grad courses and passing them, she sponsored me for admission, officially, into the University. She said, “Let’s apply you into the grad college. If they say no, then we’ll apply you to undergrad.” Well the grad college didn’t say no. And they allowed me to take courses, a couple of courses at a time. I paid my own way. There was no financial aid because my husband earned too much money and my parents earned too much money. But I was a housewife, you know. So in the end, I worked. I worked for professors, I typed people’s papers. I paid my own way through Princeton. They allowed me to do it over a five-year period — it was a two-year degree.

It was the hardest thing I ever did, because when I first got here I was overwhelmed by the place and I thought how can I even manage this? I wasn’t sure I was smart enough, and yet I was there. And I did the work. As I said, that first year was a real watershed because I found out that I could write the papers, do the research, take the exams, pass them. Because I hadn’t been in school since, you know, 1961.

Because I was at a different stage in my life, I didn’t need a social life, which helped a lot. Then this place for me became a cloister: All I did was study and go home. My children respected the fact I was back at school and not playing tennis or bridge like all the other mothers were doing. And so I came home with homework and they came home with homework. And I was very blessed that during the five years I was here, nobody fell and broke a leg, my kids didn’t throw a rock through a police car window — nothing happened so it was like time suspended itself, which allowed me to do what I had to do to get through Princeton.

They don’t let you work, they didn’t, the year you would write your thesis. So I had no way of getting money. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and they I remembered I had a diamond engagement ring in the bank vault. I told [my husband] don’t buy me a diamond, I don’t like diamonds, I’ll never wear it. Well thank god I had put it away. And what I did was I sold it and got $4,000 for the diamond, which at the time, 1975, was full tuition at Princeton.

I wrote my thesis on the Mount Laurel case, which was an exclusionary zoning law case in New Jersey. A community was using 2-acre zoning to keep out poor people — low- and moderate-income. And so the Burlington County NAACP sued Mount Laurel. They won. And so my thesis was about that.

You know, I lived on three hours a night sleep. I would wait until after the children were asleep to do my homework. And I would get up at 6:00 in the morning and have to get them breakfast and pick up the car pool and get everybody to school. I don’t know how I did it. I mean, when I got to the University, I was the first one in the architecture building. So I used to make the coffee in the morning. The day I defended my thesis, one of the people on my thesis committee said, after it was all over— You know the process, you go up and defend it, then you leave the room. They deliberate, you come back in. If they all stand up, you’re going to graduate. So they all stood up, and Professor Rapkin, who was chairman of my thesis committee, said, “Who’s going to make the coffee?” I’d been making the coffee in the morning for five years.

Danielson’s thesis caught the eye of staffers for New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne ’49 and led to a job in housing policy analysis for the governor’s Office of Policy and Planning. She later worked in the state’s labor and corrections departments. Now retired, Danielson says that Princeton “broke every rule” for her — and changed the course of her life in the process.