By Jade

This is a response to ‘How To be an Ivy League Student’ by Tiffany Chen, published on Thought Catalog on May 20, 2011.

Feel like you are in no way smart enough to be there.  Feel overwhelmed.  Bring with you a pink bedspread, clothes that won’t fit by midway through the year but you’ll continue to wear anyway, all the naivete of an eighteen year old who’s never been away from home, and all the “smarts” of an English major who decided to take Astrophysics in her first semester at the number one school in the country.

Beg your mom and dad, who have flown 3,000 miles to be with you on Parents’ Weekend, to take you back with them.  Cry when your mom, with tears in her own empathetic eyes, hits you with some tough love: “Stick it out for a year.  If you’re really unhappy, then you can transfer.”  For the rest of your life, love her more than she’ll ever understand.  Not for coming up with a contingency plan, but for making you stay.

Within a few months, join some clubs, make some friends, and ace your midterms–even Astro–because you went to office hours twice a week.  (Soon realize how silly that was.)  Feel closer to people you’ve known for two weeks, a month, a year than people you’ve known since kindergarten.  Spend every waking moment with them.  Decide you never want to go home again.  Decide this is home.

Join a belly dance troupe and rehearse 12 hours a week.  Years later, quip that you went to Princeton and majored in belly dance.  Join an eating club. Years later, attempt to explain what an eating club is and struggle to find the words.

Join also the chorus of, “Ugh, I am SO stressed…[midterms/finals/senior theses] SUCK,” but make deliberate efforts not to take any of it for granted.  Walk through the Gothic-style corridors, the garden, the town square, and breathe in the beauty and opportunities with which your hard work does and will continue to reward you.  Know that plenty of your classmates skip lecture regularly, but never miss a class (except that one time you were sick and forwent an Art History lecture, which you were P[ass]/D/F[ail]ing anyway).

Take a seminar for which you read the entirety of Toni Morrison’s literary corpus.  On the last day of class, sit two feet from Morrison herself.  With a trembling hand, give her a book to inscribe with your name, which coincidentally you share with one of the characters in Tar Baby.  Share a smile over that.  Pass Cornel West on your way out of the building.

Work a campus job all four years.  Be humbled by the apron they make you wear in the dining hall, but grin and bear it.  If the Office of Financial Aid has given you so much to allow you to live your dream, this is the least you can do.  Learn after two years that a library job means getting paid to do your homework and not wearing an apron.  Make the transfer.

Wonder how different your life would be if you’d grown up in a town like Princeton, rather than one where, at eight years old, you heard a 17-year-old being shot to death across the street over a drug deal gone sour, and where, at fifteen, your brother’s car was shot up in your driveway.  Where your Princeton acceptance was so unprecedented that the local paper put your picture on the front page under the headline “Ivy League Material.”  In some way, appreciate those experiences for propelling you forward and upward.

When you fly home for the holidays, feel completely detached from your hometown and your old life.  Have difficulty believing you’re actually the same girl who lived it.  Surprise your parents when [Billy Joel/Bon Jovi/Van Morrison] comes on the radio and you squeal, “Oh my God, I love him!  This is my SONG!”  They want to believe you’re the same little girl they kept begrudgingly relinquishing to a Newark-bound airplane, all of you wiping tears on the sleeves of your Princeton T-shirts, but they know you’re not.  They’ll realize you’re emblematic of the life they could have had if times were different and they didn’t marry at 23.  They’ll start to ask you for advice, even if they don’t understand some of the fancy new words you’ve acquired and routinely employ in casual conversation, like hegemony and fraught.

Feel a twinge of primal jealousy every time a girl you knew in high school announces via Facebook that she is having a[nother] baby.  Look forward to posting that update in about a decade.

Realize that the pages of this fairytale are turning too quickly.  Wake up one day and wonder who the hell you’ve become and where the hell you’re going.  Weep with pride when you receive an email from the Phi Beta Kappa Society informing you that you’re graduating in the top 10 percent of your class.  Be mindful of when and how you drop both P-bombs in mixed company.  Wonder if maybe an Ivy League degree really boils down to three things: a country club admission, a different way of thinking about the world, and social currency.  Pick up your diploma.

Have the fellowship for which you were chosen pulled out from under you because your dream non-profit lost the funding it would have used to pay your salary.  Shake your fist at the economy, and realize that an Ivy League degree does not make one recession-proof.  Spend your first summer in the real world sending out résumés and cover letters, some 80 to 100 of them.  Only hear back from the companies that are considerate enough (you guess?) to tell you that the position has been filled internally.  Thank you for your interest.

Refuse to move back in with your parents.  Tutor kids living in Michigan for the SATs via Skype and work at a consignment store.  Swallow hard when customers condescendingly ask, “You went to Princeton and you work here?”  Feel absolutely no need to explain yourself, but crumble a little inside.

Get anxious.  Apply to grad school.  Get into your top-choice Master’s program at NYU and turn down Columbia.  Get a Facebook message from your cousin, whose roommate works at a PR agency, acknowledging your interest in PR and asking if you want to apply for an internship.  Send the roommate your résumé immediately and accept the internship just as swiftly as it is offered to you.  Intern 30 hours a week while going to grad school more than full time.  Have no social life.  Have no idea what it’s supposed to feel like to be a twenty-something in New York City.  Get straight A’s and a job offer.

Accept the position and bring home a salary that’s less than a year’s tuition at your Ivy League alma mater.  Cringe when you allow yourself to think about this, but remind yourself how you said you’d give anything to have a full-time job.  Carve out a fulfilling social life.  Work with girls who graduated from award-winning PR programs at great schools like Syracuse and UNC, and apprehend how good they are at this job.  Wonder if and how your liberal-arts-English-Italian-poetry-loving degree is really serving you.

But come to understand how acutely it is.  Realize that a world-class education, the events you’ve attended, the 96-page thesis you had to write just to graduate, and the hands you’ve shaken would be objectively invaluable to anyone’s personal and professional development.  But know it’s the moments in which you’re chatting with Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the one book that absolutely brings you to your knees, and realizing the two of you studied in the same library that imbue you with confidence, make you believe in your capabilities, and attach you to a network whose chief export is greatness.

It’s when submitting vacation requests for the same weekend every year so you can drink under a tent with 20,000 alumni and as many of their friends and family–all of you decked out in orange, black, and tiger print–that you know you’re a part of a singular culture that opens doors to places you didn’t know existed, and those yet to materialize.  It’s sitting around a living room on the Upper West Side swapping stories about all the stupid shit you’ve gotten into with the best friends who have become your family, knowing you’ve seen each other at your best and worst, and knowing they’re going to be among the most powerful people in the country within a few decades’ time.

You think, hell, perhaps none of this is attributable to the Ivy League at all (except the Reunions part…no, really), but it doesn’t matter.  Princeton made you the person you were meant to be all along, and understanding that is the key to appreciating any degree for what it’s truly worth.