I recall from Ambassador boot camp that I must remain impartial on all things at all times, so I have asked my spouse, Dr. McWaine to author this article.
As Princeton Class of 1980, he knows the school extremely well. As a physician, he will almost certainly be clinical and detached in his exposition. Over to you, Duane.
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DEM: Thank you, Ambassador! Like many Princeton University alumni, I have been back to campus in beautiful Princeton, New Jersey several times in the years since I graduated, including twice this year alone. Each time I go back I’m amazed at what’s changed and heartened by what remains the same.
The 4th-oldest college in the United States, Princeton University consistently appears at the top of all international university rankings. Whether by U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Kiplinger, or others, Princeton is widely recognized for the excellence of its educational offerings, often placing in the top 3 for worldwide institutions. In fact, U.S. News & World Report this year ranked Princeton as the #1 university on Earth.
Founded in the city of Elizabeth as the College of New Jersey by a group of Presbyterian clergy in 1746, the University settled in the Princeton Borough ten years later. Over time the campus has seen the transition of momentous historical events. In 1776, the 6th president of the College, John Witherspoon, signed the Declaration of Independence. In 1783, Nassau Hall, which still bears scars of cannon fire from the Revolutionary War, was America’s temporary national capital. In fact, it was during a session here that the Continental Congress first learned that the British had signed the peace treaty conceding American independence.
College lore is passed down from student to student, but the actual passage of time is etched into the magnificent buildings. While many campuses in America hold to one distinctive architectural style, Princeton exhibits a mixture of genre and flair. Colonial, Collegiate Gothic, and modern styles not only coexist but complement each other across campus. Truly iconic buildings include Blair Hall, a favorite location for the a cappella group Arch Sings that resonate across the campus on any given night … Holder Tower, which demarcates the northwest corner of the main campus … and the Icahn Laboratory, one of the newest structures and home of Integrative Genomics.
Over the centuries the main campus has grown to comprise nearly 200 buildings spread over more than 500 acres (205 hectares) of gently rolling landscape and the leisurely shores of Carnegie Lake. Despite ongoing growth the campus retains its original open, intimate, pastoral feel. The Graduate College is linked to the main campus by a golf course often used by undergraduates for cross-country skiing. (The odd cafeteria tray may have been used for sledding there – rumor has it.)
The Forrestal campus lies less than 3 miles (5 kilometers) away down Route 1. Approximately 1,600 acres (6.5 square kilometers) in size, the Forrestal complex is the home of the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and comprises three separate research facilities: the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) with its Tokamak fusion reactor, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), and the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) department’s Gas Dynamics and Fluid Mechanics Laboratory.
It is noteworthy that across every corner of the campus, Princeton has instituted sustainability and conservation practices that rival any in the world. Adopted 5 years ago, the University’s Sustainability Plan aims to reduce emission of greenhouse gases, conserve resources, and contribute to global efforts research, education, and civic engagement. Core goals are to decrease overall campus carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, decrease personal water use by 25 percent below 2007 levels, and recycle at least 95% of nonhazardous materials from demolition, construction, and operations even as the campus grows.
The size of the student body which occupies these beautiful premises has grown since my days at Princeton. Current enrollment includes 5,500 undergraduates and 1,300 graduate students. More impressive is the rich diversity that Princeton strives for. International students make up more than ten percent of the undergraduate student body, while American minorities comprise nearly 40% of domestic students. The Davis International Center, The Fields Center, Women’s Center, and LGBT Center are just a few examples of the resources and support available for this diverse student body.
One of Princeton’s great strengths is its attention to individual students and their needs, exhibited primarily via an undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio of less than 6 to 1. Princeton’s introductory lecture courses average fewer than 40 students. Larger and medium-sized courses include break-out sessions (called Preceptorials) of 3-10 students. A defining component of the University’s education, “Precepts” were created not only to allow more individualized attention and instruction, but also to encourage students to voice their own opinions and challenge those of their peers.
Among current faculty and instructors are found scores of National Humanities and Science Medal winners, renown artists-in-residence, and more than 20 Nobel laureates. Undergraduates have access to every member of this lauded community — every Princeton faculty member, laureates included, teaches at least one undergraduate course (though many choose to teach more than one). Yes, even Albert Einstein gave undergraduate lectures during his 22 years at Princeton. Many faculty live on or near campus, and some serve as heads of the University’s residential colleges, affording more organic interaction among undergraduates and instructors.
Princeton is committed to making this exceptional educational experience available to the widest range of qualified students. To that end, Princeton did away with undergraduate student loans in 2001. No student who is admitted to Princeton is turned away for a lack of ability to pay; he or she is only charged what, if anything, he or she can afford. Increasingly emulated among other elite institutions, Princeton was the first university to take this ambitious and powerful step.
While campus amenities, history, class size, and financial assistance are of course very important to the student experience, Princeton’s real drawing power is the superlative quality of its academic offerings. The university awards A.B. and B.S.E. degrees in 34 internationally ranked academic departments. In addition, students may earn certificates of proficiency in nearly 50 specialized certificate programs such as applied and computational mathematics, creative writing, and teacher preparation.
Among all those possibilities, I chose to major in Psychology. I knew pretty early that I wanted to become a doctor and that Psychiatry was the medical specialty I wanted to pursue. I could not have chosen a better place than Princeton to do my undergraduate studies, and I remain grateful for the early exposure there to many of the people who helped define psychological research in the 20th century.
Within the confines of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), Princeton consistently vies for the top marks internationally. With highly-ranked Chemistry (16th by U.S. News), Chemical Engineering (6th by U.S. News), and Molecular Biology (10th by U.S. News) departments, and drawing on the brain power and reputation built by the department of Psychology (5th by U.S. News), Princeton has created world class programs in Quantitative and Computational Biology and several Neuroscience fields of study that did not exist as undergraduate pursuits when I was in college.
Non-STEM offerings are just as stellar. For example, the Lewis Center for the Arts – drawing on the bedrock foundation comprising the departments of Classics, Comparative Literature, History (1st by U.S. News), and English (4th by U.S. News) — is a research venue for students pursuing degrees in Dance, Theater, Visual Arts, or Creative Writing. It offers transformative opportunities to work directly with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and others. The Princeton Atelier is another exciting component, bringing together professional artists from different disciplines to create new work in the context of seminars and workshops with Princeton students.
Named for Princeton’s 13th (and America’s 28th) President, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs grew directly out of Princeton’s informal motto: “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations.” Widely referred to on campus “Woody Woo,” this is the School where the Ambassador earned his Princeton degree. It’s also where my classmate and good friend Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 served as Dean before becoming the director of policy and planning at the State Department under former Secretary Hillary Clinton.
Founded in 1930, the Wilson School has grown to educate a wide range of undergraduate and post-graduate students from the U.S. and around the world in a broad range of policy studies. It is the perfect choice for students who seek to develop and apply their knowledge and skills to solve vital public problems, both domestic and international. It is one of the most prestigious public affairs schools in the world, ranked 5th by U.S. News for each of Public Affairs, Public-Policy Analysis, and Social Policy, as well as 4th in Health Policy and Management.
A hallmark of the excellence of Princeton education is the flexibility it provides, and one of the most compelling options for undergraduate students is the University Scholar program. For those whose interests and talents span several traditional disciplines, this affords the opportunity to work with a faculty advisor to design an individual academic program with requirements and exposure across traditionally separate disciplines. At a university with so many internationally ranked departments, that flexibility is a testament to Princeton’s commitment to undergraduate education and a tribute to its emphasis on educational exploration.
The culmination of any undergraduate course for Princeton students is the senior thesis. One or two years in the making (depending on the student’s junior project), the senior thesis represents an opportunity for students to pursue original research and scholarship in a field of their choosing. Integral to the senior thesis process is the chance to work one-on-one with a faculty member who guides the development of the project. These original works are traditionally bound, and a copy of each is permanently archived by the University. The sigh of relief and accomplishment is a familiar sound across campus in the springtime.
As you would imagine, such world-leading programs generate accomplished, outstanding alumni. The list is as lengthy as it is prestigious, so I’ll just give you a sample — U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, three of nine current U.S. Supreme Court Justices (Alito, Kagan, and Sotomayor), former Secretary of State James Baker, First Lady Michelle Obama, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jimmy Stewart, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Google Chairman/CEO Eric Schmidt, Ralph Nader, Lee Iacocca, Steve Forbes, Paul Volcker, George F. Kennan, Queen Noor of Jordan, Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson, Brooke Shields, David Duchovny, mathematician Alan Turing, and physicist Richard Feynman and 16 other Nobel laureattes.
That’s an amazing list for a school of such modest size. The right metric, though, is not size but passion. Princeton is considered to have one of the most cohesive, loyal, and generous alumni networks in the world, consistently ranking as one of the very top alumni donor cohorts in America. (This is, of course, aided by their ranking as one of the wealthiest alumni groups in the country.) The University invests in alumni affinity by holding special conferences for different kinds of alumni (such as African American, LGBT, women, etc.), as well as an annual grand Reunions weekend for all alumni and their families.
With more than 20,000 alumni returning to campus every year, Reunions weekend presents the most obvious evidence of the rabidity of Princetonian passion. Decked out in costumes designed by each graduation class, alumni attend lectures and panel discussions, visit their old haunts, and gather at large class tents to dance, drink, reconnect with classmates, and reminisce about undergraduate glory days.
Reunions culminate in the raucous, colorful “One and Only P-Rade,” a procession of all alumni led by the 25th reunion class, then the oldest returning alumnus, and all other classes in graduation order, with current graduating seniors bringing up the rear. Rain or shine, there is nothing quite like the P-Rade. I have thoroughly enjoyed all in which I’ve marched, starting with my graduation in June 1980.
Circling back to student life, I should note that virtually all underclassmen (freshmen and sophomores) and roughly half of upperclassmen (juniors and seniors) live in the University’s eight Residential Colleges. For the underclassmen, these residential colleges serve as centers for living, eating, socializing, and, to a lesser extent, academic pursuits (because some of the aforementioned preceptorials take place in the residential colleges).
For upperclassmen, Princeton’s historic eating clubs represent another option for dining and social life. Clustered on an avenue adjacent to (but off) campus, these dozen institutions (many of them more than a century old) function as separate entities with their own staff, governing boards, rules, social schedules, and distinct cultures. Each club occupies a large building with rooms for socializing, dining, studying, and partying. Many of the clubs have gardens as well as athletic facilities.
Dining, weekend parties, foosball, lengthy late-night discussions of topics deep and frivolous, spontaneous musical jam sessions (including by good friend jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan ’81), and interclub sports are all part of the eating club experience. For juniors and seniors, the height of the club social season is House Parties Weekend. Similar to homecoming at other colleges and universities, it’s the weekend when the clubs pull out all the stops in mounting gala and/or blow-out parties, and the members dress to the nines.
Extracurricular life at Princeton, though, is much broader and deeper. There are several hundred student clubs and organizations covering the full range of performance, media, political, debate, demographic, cultural, athletic, literary, social, hobby, recreation, and intellectual interests. In my experience, there is literally something for everyone. And if there isn’t, the University encourages you to start a new group, as happened during my years when a group of students started the for-profit Pizza Agency.
Princeton has a particularly rich musical tradition, including a plethora of student-run a cappella groups that provide a musical outlet for members and entertainment for the student body. The Nassoons, Tigerlilies, Tigertones, Tigressions, and Old NasSoul are but a few of the many groups currently singing on campus. Many of the groups tour outside Princeton and record albums. More formal musical expression can be found in the Chapel choir and Gospel choir.
I did duty at WPRB (the student radio station) and was a member of The Triangle Club, the oldest touring collegiate musical comedy troupe in the United States. (Founded in 1891.) Members of Triangle write, compose, and choreograph the Club’s shows, which are famous for their erudite but hilarious and often bawdy nature. We took particular pride in staging our annual Spring show (with its all-male comedic but high precision kickline) at Princeton’s McCarter Theater, a theater with “no sign above its door.” (Sorry, inside joke.)
Of course, the Ambassador would want me to mention the Princeton University Band (PUB), in which he played trombone. Founded in 1919, PUB is one of the oldest marching bands in the world. It is also one of the most fun, both for musicians and spectators. It is a “scramble band” in grand Ivy League tradition, which means that its halftime shows during sporting events involve witty narration, musical satire, eccentric and sometimes bawdy formations, and running in a disorderly fashion (rather than marching precisely) between formations.
The PUB is perhaps most famous for its distinctive vintage uniforms, its ”double-rotating P” formation (which is roughly what it sounds), guerrilla performances around campus, knowing how to stoke a home crowd (particularly on Harvard and Yale weekends), and being occasionally censored and even barred from away games because of concerns over double entendres. PUB also prides itself on being the world’s only synchronized swim band, performing occasional concerts in the reflecting pool outside the Wilson School (see below).
Of course, collegiate sports are well represented at Princeton. Our football team traditionally competes well within the Ivy League, and the basketball team annually performs spectacularly in the big NCAA tournament. We are powerhouses at a variety of other sports such as both men’s and women’s lacrosse, volleyball, swimming, track, tennis, and crew. Both men’s and women’s rugby are strong, which makes sense given Princeton’s long history of rugby excellence.
If you don’t want to compete at the varsity level, there is an extensive array of club and other intramural sports opportunities. And it’s great fun to support teams from the stands and sidelines. I actually had the good luck to be the tiger mascot at a basketball game during my undergraduate time. What a blast that was!
History and school spirit run very deep at Princeton, and the spirit of Princetoniana manifests in a variety of ways, like being the tiger mascot. Our orange-and-black colors are ubiquitous on and around campus. “Old Nassau,” the school song, is sung at official events and many informal gatherings. There are several fight songs composed just for Princeton which have been sung at sporting matches for many decades.
And there is a rich fabric of school traditions old and new. Some traditions like the senior thesis, reading period, and the Harvard-Yale bonfire (a massive conflagration lit in years when we beat both Harvard and Yale in varsity football) have continued for many generations. Others spawn new traditions, such as Cane Spree (a centuries-old brute strength athletic competition between freshmen and sophomores) evolving to include Wii Spree.
Still others such as the Nude Olympics, or “stealing” the clapper from Nassau Hall’s Bell Tower, remain part of the lore even if no longer practiced. The Pre-Rade is a new tradition: at the beginning of the fall term entering freshmen process through FitzRandolph gate as a class, symbolically and literally entering the University community.
The University’s location is itself a great asset. The historic town of Princeton contains a diversity of excellent eateries, bars, clubs, historical sites, and other amenities, mostly pitched to a student’s budget. I particularly recommend you try the Alchemist & Barrister and Thomas Sweets. As I discovered when we were in town for the Every Voice Conference earlier this year, the Ambassador as a special affection for Hoagie Haven and its chicken cheesesteaks.
Surrounding the town and campus is the bucolic natural beauty central New Jersey with great recreational opportunities. The University has its own spur train line, which puts you a scant hour’s train ride from New York City’s Times Square or center-city Philadelphia. Not too much farther afield by train are the cobbled streets of Boston and museums and national monuments of Washington. An hour’s drive east will take you straight to the Jersey Shore and its wide beaches, casinos, and distinctive micro-culture. About an hour’s drive west and you’re in the ski resorts of Pennsylvania’s Poconos.
I could go on for pages about other aspects of our great University. The Honor Code, Motto (Dei Sub Numine Viget), Art Museum collections, Firestone Library with its 70 miles (113 km) of shelves, Spring Fling, and Outdoor Action are just a few of the interesting topics I’ve left out because I don’t want to tax your patience.
Hopefully what I’ve written gives you some indication of why Princeton alumni tend to be so passionate about our University, as well as why for many generations we’ve referred to our school as “The Best Damn Place of All.” I credit my alma mater not only with my education but also with exposing me to people who became lifelong friends, and one in particular who became my life partner.
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I have nothing to append to Dr. McWaine’s narrative, other than a wholly inappropriate peek behind the trench coats of the notorious flasher squad of the Princeton University Band:
For more information about Princeton, its many academic offerings, the many world class research opportunities for students, and how to apply, check out the University’s main website. Please feel free to email our Educational Adviser, Drew Dumas, at DumasAG@state.gov if you have specific questions. And as a general matter, please consider following the Embassy’s education Twitter feed, @EducationUSANZ.