At Reunions, Carolyn Bowman Pugh ’81 and her daughter Alexa ’16 spoke with PAW about how the different time periods that they were on campus shaped their Princeton experiences.
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When Carolyn Pugh arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1977 from an urban high school in Tennessee, it didn’t take long for her to feel like an outsider on campus. Back in those days, black students rarely joined eating clubs, and Carolyn couldn’t afford to study abroad like many of her peers. After graduation, she left New Jersey and never looked back — well, that is until her daughter, Alexa, was accepted into Princeton’s Class of 2016.
I’m Allie Wenner from the Princeton Alumni Weekly. For this episode of PAW Tracks, we spoke to Carolyn, who is a member of the Princeton Class of 1981, and her daughter, Alexa Pugh, who just graduated in June. The two of them have a lot in common, but their experiences here on campus were very different. They told us more about how their extracurricular activities and the time periods that they were here on campus really shaped their Princeton experiences, for better and for worse.
CBP: When I came here in 1977, that was soon after women were fully integrated on campus and it was early in the time that big numbers of black students were coming on campus. So I didn’t realize it until afterwards that it was a changing time. I was here during the time of the 1978 protests as well, so that was asking the University to divest from South Africa. So I participated in that – I was not vocal and out front, but I was one of those marching around in circles, … It was a very visible thing on the campus during the time that I was here. It was huge at least for two school years that I can remember.
I was very active in the Third World Center when I was here. I think I mentioned coming back for my 30th, and the Third World Center was getting ready to, they were going to demolish that building. So a lot of people came – I remember thinking how sad that was that they were going to demolish it and how that was home to so many of us, and the special place that it meant for a lot of us. I was from the South, and I was from Memphis, Tennessee, and so I remember when I showed up at Princeton – I had never been here before, I didn’t do a pre-visit or anything – so when I showed up I had luggage in-hand. So I just felt like it was a place that was welcoming.
And so when I talked to Alexa, she said, ‘We have the Carl Fields Center,’ and I remember telling her, ‘Well, that’s not quite the same.’ But I’m glad they have the Carl Fields Center, I feel good about that. In a physical sense it’s more a part of the main campus because it is along the street where the clubs are. So it just feels more integrated, so I think that’s a good thing.
On the other hand, I think some things were lost by not having the Third World Center. And a lot of us old school people, we still call it the Third World Center — the Carl Fields Center is where its located but the Third World Center is kind of more of a frame of mind, part of who you are.
But what it seems to me is the Carl Fields Center is certainly nicer. It’s a nice building, it looks nice, it looks like a good place you’d have receptions and things like that. The Third World Center felt like a hangout, and it maybe looked like a hangout. There was no problem at all going down there and just crashing, and just waiting for somebody else to walk through the door, because there certainly was somebody else who would walk through the door, and you’d just hang out. I get the sense the Carl Fields Center is a little more formal than that, although I must say I don’t know because I’m not here.
When I go there now, and I’ve been there several times, I tend to go for events, I don’t think I’m going there just to hang out. But I’m an alumus now, so I will allow that that’s different, but I think the good thing is it’s brought more into the mainstream of the University and of the campus. For somebody who was here way back, it doesn’t feel like my place. So that’s the difference, and I won’t blame the Carl Fields Center or the administration, I would just say that it was a different time. And that’s what I tell Alexa a lot. I say, ‘It was just a different time.’
AP: It’s not really a hangout place, and even the administration’s admitted that. But every time I’ve been there, it’s been pretty empty, or it’s been some sort of reception. I feel like some of the minority groups have things there, but there’s not like a central point for them. Like the Princeton Association of Black Women and the Latinx groups and all of that, they don’t hang out in the Third World Center. They may host Soul Food Night and stuff like that, but…
CBP: You know, another thing I think that’s different of course is, it’s different now. There were few outlets for some of us, whereas there’s all kinds of things for people to do now. And people might say, ‘Well, there were all kinds of things to do then,’ but not if you not been exposed to this kind of world.
But I came from a big, urban, all-black high school, urban city. And now I realize it wasn’t just me, a lot of people felt like, ‘I do not belong here.’ But it wasn’t just me, there were a bunch of us who felt, ‘Whoa, how did we get here? We do not belong here.’ And so I wish that we had known that then, like ‘You aren’t the only one, and we’re kind of in this together.’ But we were much more private about having less. So if you participate in a lot of things, you’d expose yourself to having less.
Like if you tried to get into the clubs, first of all you couldn’t afford it, and your parents couldn’t afford it. So rather than expose yourself that way, you just didn’t even try to do that. But it’s different now, so like Alexa, she wanted to be a club and I was thinking, ‘Okay….’ Like I didn’t realize about 80 percent of students here are in clubs. Oh, or 80 percent of students who are eligible are in clubs. And I thought, ‘Seriously?’ In my world, hardly anybody who I knew was in a club. So I thought, ‘Well that’s a main part of the social life of the University, as it exists today.’ And so I wouldn’t want her not to be able to do that. So I supported her being in a club.
AP: Well, everyone can feel like they don’t belong here for many reasons, but when the social life is around all these clubs – like I’m in Terrace and very happy about it, but it’s also pretty expensive and not everyone can afford it. And then when you get to the pass system and being put on list for things, it’s horrible. It’s just like, that’s the only thing we can do, like people don’t hang out in bars really. Like you can have a party in your dorm room, but it’s not the same as everyone all the students are going to go hang out in this big house. A lot of the people who were protesting, they don’t belong to that world, like you have to pretend to be a certain way, you have to act a certain way just to meet more people and get the passes, or be able to… I don’t really know. It’s just such a particular culture. But if students don’t want to be a part of it, well then they have to make up their own things.
I was thinking about this recently with friends. I don’t like it, but I think that it’s the same at many other schools, if not worse with fraternities and sororities. There’s always some exclusive club. The only way to have the mainstream fun that everyone’s having. Terrace doesn’t feel like that, I’m glad I joined that one. It’s non-bicker, and you can just have your prox, your student ID, and go in. And I really liked that vibe where everyone’s hanging out.
CBP: Are you glad that you came to Princeton, and are there things that you wish would change for your child?
AP: I think I’m really glad that I came here because I met a lot of really wonderful people, and you have no idea how talented people are until you’re among them and making things with them. There were rough times, and I did get annoyed with the exclusive things, and I got annoyed that, some people can take a break at Princeton. But a lot of the time your break feels like time cut out of the time that you should be working. So I had a certain amount of work that I wanted to do every day for my first three years, so I was like, ‘I have 300 pages of reading to do, so that means every day I have to read 50 pages…times four classes. And so then, I would just be staying up until 5 a.m. reading, and then still wake up for class because I don’t like skipping class, and just do all of that until Thursday. It was after I studied abroad that I calmed down.
CBP: So she studied abroad her junior year – AP: I forgot about that. That was awesome. – and that was another thing that I just couldn’t even consider. And she said too, ‘Well it was different, everybody wasn’t doing it.’ Well now they are, and so I’m glad she had an opportunity to do it.
Before Alexa was accepted to Princeton, Carolyn had returned for two reunions – her 10th and her 30th. But since 2013, she’s come back every year.
CP: I got on Facebook in 2009, and I found a lot of people on Facebook, and it was like this whole Princeton community of people I knew exploded on Facebook. And these were people that I wanted to see again, and I was living in Wisconsin, so far from Princeton, and so far from anything orange and black, and so that was a way for me to reconnect with Princeton.
And so when I come back with Alexa, I look at Princeton a whole different way. When I first came back with her her freshman year. So I had a whole new kind of way of looking at Princeton. It was a new excitement. Like I said, I came back for my 10th and no more until my 30th. That’s a lot of time that passed. So I didn’t have an affinity to the University during that time, but when I got on Facebook, I realized that a major time in my life was here, a major period in my life, a defining kind of period. And the people that were here during that time were not people I want to lose track of.
And so it was sometime after that I thought, “You know, I went there, I did what it took to get through there, and I’m proud to say that I went to Princeton.” I wasn’t always proud to say it – I would say “I went to school in New Jersey.” But I felt differently once I could look at it in a different generation and through her eyes.
2016 marked Alexa’s fourth time attending Reunions as a student. For the first three years, she worked serving food at the 15th-reunion tent. But this year, it’s a different story.
AP: It’s very bittersweet because I’m getting everything I wanted, kind of. The whole four years have been like “when will I graduate?” It’s so great but it’s so hard. And also I’m going to be living in France next year, which is what I’ve always wanted. Since I’m going to be so far away, I’m sad to be leaving.
CP: It’ll go really fast.
CP: Like writing your thesis [laughs].
Allie Wenner produced this episode. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.
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