It was a little over four years ago that I first stepped foot onto campus. I had missed Princeton Preview because of classes, so I was touring campus with my family later in the spring. I remember the sun scorching the back of my neck as I questioned why the Engineering Quadrangle was so distant from everything else. I was most confused by how buildings with vastly different architectures could constitute a cohesive campus — take, for instance, modern buildings such as the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and compare them to gothic buildings like Firestone Library. Nothing appeared to fit in.
During freshman fall, I found myself in a new, exciting but frightening world. As someone who often felt alienated from my peers in high school, I was uncertain about what lay ahead. Walking around campus during those first few months as a first-year, I felt no tangible connection to the campus. I had no friends to make it a home, no sanctuaries to hide away in, no knowledge of building names and locations — why are there so many Lewises, again? I joined different groups searching for a place to belong. Because I couldn’t seem to fit in anywhere.
Semesters passed. I found steady study groups for my departmental courses, claimed an alcove on the second floor of Firestone for myself, and no longer needed to open Google Maps to get to class. I had finally mastered the art of waking up at 7 a.m. for course selection, managed to survive my first encounter with room draw, and moved up the ranks in the organizations I hadn’t dropped following my first semester. I eventually became an artistic director in TapCats and head design editor at The Daily Princetonian, believing that I could find that sense of belonging I was searching for if I could meaningfully contribute to these organizations.
Then came March 2020.
Following a flurry of tears, hurried goodbyes, and soon-to-be-broken promises about future meetings in-person, campus as we knew it was transformed. Buildings were emptied, the people who brought campus to life departed, and everything became quiet. I found myself at home, like so many others, displaced and missing that connection to campus even more.
Grappling with my anxieties while mourning what was and could have been, I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of loss: no more quiet nights with my roommate or lengthy rehearsals filled with chaotic laughter, no more random drop-ins into the newsroom to check on my new designers and snag some snacks for later, no more mealtimes where one friend became two then 10. Without a campus, how could I hope to fit in?
But somehow, against the odds, “campus” life continued strong. Random encounters were replaced by impromptu Zoom calls, friendly outings by FaceTime walks, and crowded mealtimes by never-ending text chains and Slack messages. Even with the uncertainty of the future looming ahead like an omnipresent nightmare, I found hope in a community that stretched beyond campus grounds. And I slowly found myself becoming more outspoken at meetings and in class, more eager to bring about change, more confident that what I said and did had value — that it mattered.
It was this burgeoning feeling of belonging, along with the encouragement of friends, that prompted me to apply for and persevere as a managing editor at the ‘Prince’ while simultaneously spearheading TapCats. The learning curve that followed — late nights consumed by “newsZoom” production and rehearsals, making important decisions and grappling with the ensuing backlash, and leading my own projects and meetings — pushed me out of my shell. When we arrived back on campus, I finally felt like I was carving my own path, helping those around me without the stress of attempting to adhere to others’ expectations.
Reflecting on the past four years, I am grateful for the spontaneous conversations and random encounters, for late nights talking with friends and laughing about anything and everything, both on Zoom and in-person. I am thankful for personal victories, like speaking in front of a large crowd without trembling, taking charge of show preparations, and initiating conversations with strangers. I even appreciate the difficult memories — the times when I cried because I didn’t feel like I belonged or when I doubted if I was capable — because they helped me grow. I leave Princeton a different person, more self-assured and ready to take on the challenges that lie ahead.
But what I value most is the realization that I didn’t need to fill any mold in order to belong because I can create my own.
There is a famous proverb in Islam that says, “A lot of different flowers make a bouquet.” Well, a lot of different buildings make a campus. A lot of different people make a community.
Just like the collection of mismatched buildings I first noticed four years ago, every student on this campus comes from a variety of backgrounds with vastly different perspectives, experiences, and personalities. But buildings don’t need to match each other on campus and we don’t need to change to fit in; everything, everyone belongs as they are. Somehow, we all form a community, a campus that we can call home — a place where I’ve found my own home.
Harsimran Makkad is Managing Editor Emerita at the ‘Prince’ and a senior in the chemical and biological engineering department from Cincinnati, Ohio. She can be reached at [email protected]
Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at [email protected]