It was not love at first sight. I have heard endearing stories of people visiting their graduate institution for the first time and instantly falling in love with the place. Like when a young bride-to-be from “Say Yes to the Dress” sees herself in an overpriced masterpiece of tulle and tearfully exclaims “THIS is my dress!”, young academics step onto the campus of their prospective institution and say “THIS is where I want to go to school.”
For me? Not so much. Except for the tears part.
I spent the first night of my visit to Princeton University sobbing uncontrollably on my bed. The day also involved me temporarily losing the use of my limbs and a stranger entering my room. At no point did I feel sure of anything, and the day ended with me calling my mother and saying “I don’t want my PhD anymore.”
To be fair, my only previous experience with ivy was swinging from it, so there was bound to be a culture collision at first. Today, I’m absolutely confident in my choice of Princeton, so it’s only fair for me to explain.
The story begins with me, ironically, crying on my bed at home. Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m too emotionally unstable to pursue higher learning, let me say that this was two months ago. I had applied to 10 schools in December and January and hadn’t heard back from anyone yet. I was agonizing about whether I should spend another small fortune for one more school, moaning on my bed. That’s when my first admission letter arrived. It was from Princeton University.
Then the flurry of graduate admission visits began. Many PhD programs invite their prospective students to visit campus and meet with professors. I also had one visit at which I competed for a fellowship. During the visit I met a medical student who runs marathons and a track star who is a neuroscientist. I was finally feeling quite accomplished about pursuing my PhD until someone asked me why I was pursuing an MD simultaneously. Wait…people do that? Welcome to the academic major league.
Activities at these visits often start at 8 a.m. and go till 9 or 10 at night for two days. The process would really be fun for most people, but for someone who sometimes has nightmares about having to say “no” and disappoint someone (and about going to swim practice naked, but that’s for another post…), the experience is something of …well…a nightmare.
*sidenote: Did you know that you have to open the door for room service? I didn’t. Isn’t the whole point that you don’t have to be seen by other people to eat breakfast?! Apparently you have to open the door to sign for the food. I gave the lady delivering the food an enormous tip for having to see me–even though she started laughing at me when I opened the door.*
At any rate, I approached my Princeton visit already emotionally and physically tired. Then Princeton had the bright idea to book me on a 6 a.m. flight. On daylight saving time morning. The morning after a wedding. When it was all said and done, I only got an hour of sleep and had to get up at 3 a.m.
I didn’t land in Newark, the airport nearest Princeton, until 11:30 a.m. Then I had to ride the airport transit to the train station. Then I had to wait for the next train for an hour. Then ride it for an hour, standing up since there were no seats.
Newark is a terrifying place that made me feel like a woodland creature in an animated children’s film about pollution. The train was also brown and dirty, but as I got closer to my destination things started looking more and more green. When I got off in Princeton it was past 2 p.m. I saw no school in sight. That’s when a bizarre 2-car contraption on a track started clickety clacking my way, and a returning alum said tenderly, “Here comes the Dinky!”
What on earth is wrong with these people?
It turns out you have to take this thing through the woods to get to Princeton. Suddenly castle-like structures start poking their tops out over the woods. In normal circumstances, I would have been thrilled, but I felt like I had just seen hell and it looked a lot like the Trenton train line. I also hadn’t eaten all day. I stumbled into my hotel at 3. The fact that signers of the Declaration of Independence once stayed there was lost on me, if that is any indication of my need for food.
Food was not to be. I had a 4 o’clock tour I needed to be on. I had just enough time to look at my window and see a woman in full suffragette costume walking down the street before I left again. There were children celebrating “Pi Day” and frolicking around a giant cutout of Albert Einstein in front of my hotel. Where am I? I met up with other prospective students on the tour, and we caught some dinner together. I ate a shocking amount of food. We walked around for a bit, seeing kids in “Harvard sucks” shirts. The only litter I saw was a few discarded Trivial Pursuit cards. I headed back to my room and collapsed on the bed.
Two hours later I woke up in the pitch dark to the sound of what appeared to be scratching along the hall and an elderly woman saying “are you OK?” in a plaintive voice.
Oh my gosh. It’s the ghost of a female student who starved because she couldn’t get into an eating club…wait…they only let women in 34 years ago…
I went through the same routine that I did when the power went out in the workout room in Zambia, and I was convinced that the serial killer my students had told me about was at the door: Breathe. This is your imagination. Listen. You see? Nothing there.
But there it was again. SCRRRATTCCCHHHH “Are you ok?”
Then my door opened. I kid you not.
I would have leapt out of bed, but I had been so deeply asleep that my arms were slow in waking up. I seemed to be temporarily paralyzed. WHAT THE HECK?! AM I FREAKING DREAMING?!
The only thing I could think to do was yell, “I’m in here,” which, to think of it, was about the worse thing I could have said. It turns out that sometimes in nice historical hotels they have the maid come in to turn down the covers–which is unnecessary if you are already under them. Why the scratching and creepy voice? We will never know. In her defense, it was only 7:30 p.m.
I needed to be up for drinks with current students at 8:00, so I rustled together a collegiate outfit and hustled downstairs.
I think I will save the description of what it is like to yell to a bartender that you want a virgin Shirley Temple in the middle of a room of debating Ivy Leagers, holding lagers, for the next post. Oh! You’ll also want to hear about me meeting my first Knight and Lady.