Bubble Boys and Girls
Princeton University Students
By Katharine Westfall
Unigo Campus Rep at Princeton University
I first heard about “the bubble” a couple weeks into freshman year. I didn’t really know what the phrase meant—I envisioned a glass dome that enclosed Princeton, so that from space it would look something like a snow-globe. I liked that image because I had always thought I’d be wrong for a college like NYU or U-Penn where you can’t tell where the school starts and the city ends.
It took Hurricane Katrina and refugee Tulane students, the Duke Lacrosse case, and the shootings at Virginia Tech for me to realize what that bubble really meant. It meant that all I had ever worried about here was papers, deadlines, and when to meet my roommates for dinner. I feel very safe here at Princeton. That might be because of the quaint suburban atmosphere or the blue-light emergency phones I’ve never had to use. Or it might be because the people here are smart, and smart people are not dangerous people.
That last part sounds ridiculous, right? And it is. But until very recently, I think it was a theory held by many Princeton students, if only subconsciously. The bubble meant isolation and, to a certain extent, ignorance. Then in April of this year a fight broke out at a University-sponsored dance party when high school students from the Princeton area harassed some freshman girls. Very shortly after that bizarre incident, we were informed of something even worse: a member of the freshman class had been arrested and charged with aggravated assault and kidnapping one of his female classmates. Most of us were only made aware of this after a campus safety alert, sent via email, informed us to call Public Safety immediately if this student were ever seen on campus. As one sophomore, Ben, puts it, “I was like, what the hell? I don’t even read those emails usually because they’re generally about stolen bikes or something like that.” I think it was this newsworthy drama that made us wonder if our bubble might have popped.
There has been a lot of talk lately about safety on campus. Generally this talk does not surface out of fear or anxiety. Most Princeton students whom I have spoken with do not seem particularly concerned about their safety. Rather, as is typical of Princeton, the issue of safety has turned political, instead of personal. Immediately after the publicized arrest, students began criticizing the administration’s response time and its failure to disclose information to the student body. “I just think they handled it really badly,” said Kat, a junior. Vague but strong comments like these are pretty common. The student newspaper reported that Public Safety had been alerted about an abusive relationship before the kidnapping but had not had enough evidence to do anything about it. Of course, according to a Director of Student Life in Rocky, one of the residential colleges, “We handled the situation as quickly and as sensitively as we possibly could, given all the various legal barriers.” Still, one sophomore named Rachel said, “Between all the stories I’m hearing and reading, I don’t think I actually have a clue what really happened.”
And not all students have responded so negatively to the university’s actions. Many have noted the increased daytime Public Safety presence around the underclassmen quads, and they feel reassured by it. “I’ve noticed it. It’s nice to actually see something happening instead of just being told,” said Lindsay, a senior and Residential College Advisor. It is also nice to know that the campus police really care about something more than noise complaints and underage drinking. Additionally, Directors of Student Life held meetings with students who felt involved in the kidnapping incident to inform them about exactly what was being done to protect their safety. “There are some we’re still working with because they’re just really terrified,” the Rocky DSL says. “We can’t provide them with 24-hour bodyguards or anything, and we also don’t think that’s necessary, but we’re seeing what else we can do to make them comfortable.” One freshman, Kate, who says that her best friend was close with the victim, called the situation “stressful and intense” for everyone who was drawn into it. Overall, though, most students seem to think that these recent events were isolated situations and there’s no point in being afraid of any recurrence. Still other students, like Lauren, a junior, are concerned that there are people within our community “who aren’t getting the attention and counseling that they need.” It is scary to think that Princeton students can get too caught up in their own work and their own drive to really take notice of the people around them.
I don’t think our bubble has popped—I think it is slowly shrinking and closing in on itself. For so long, we have joked about our idyllic existence removed from the real world. Our motto is “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” A fair number of students think this is a total joke. A freshman named Mark said, “I don’t even know that many students who do community service on a regular basis.” Aren’t we all just here for ourselves, climbing selfishly towards our own individual successes? We may not want such a reputation—and really, it probably isn’t true—but we’ve gotten caught up in other things and inadvertently started building it for ourselves.
In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald described Princeton as “the pleasantest country club in America.” I grew up in the middle of Washington, D.C., and, to be honest, I don’t mind that description; if there was one thing I knew I wanted in a college, it was the promise of a new experience in a new type of place. I don’t expect Princeton to break from this stereotype anytime soon, so while we have it I think we might as well make the best of it. If we’re going to be a sheltered and exclusive community, then let’s take this opportunity to develop a strong bond and sense of caring among ourselves. I know it sounds crazy, but in a way I think these recent events—these little pin pricks in our bubble—may have been good for the university as a whole. In fact, just last week, the undergraduate community held a conversational “town hall meeting” for the first time I can remember in three years. We’re number one for academics, and now we can wake up and start working on the rest of it.