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Ive read posts on CC accusing Princeton eating clubs of being elitist and divisive. But Ive also noticed an interesting aspect of the criticism - it all comes from people who dont attend Princeton. The barbs seem to especially emanate from current Yale and Harvard students. Why they feel such a need to spread their negative view on eating clubs is curious. As one who did in fact go to Princeton and belonged to an eating club, Id like to offer a more personal perspective.
Like many CC viewers, I was fortunate enough to be admitted to Princeton, Harvard and Yale. I selected Princeton for academic reasons. Its not that I didnt consider a colleges social life to be important - I very much believe its vital. I just figured that anywhere there were bright, interesting students, I would find my niche. And I still think thats true. But in high school, I didnt know an eating club from a secret society from a finals club from a hole in the ground. I congratulate those CC posters who have such fully developed opinions on eating clubs. They are much more knowledgeable and sophisticated consumers than I ever was back then.
I absolutely loved my eating club experience and so did the vast majority of people I knew at Princeton. Why? Well, why do P, H and Y have residential colleges to subdivide their student bodies? To create smaller, more intimate communities in which students can feel more at home. I think residential colleges are a great idea. Eating clubs are a logical extension of the same concept.
Residential colleges at P, H and Y generally have 400-500 students. Eating clubs have less than half that number of members, usually about 100-150. Theyre even closer, warmer social infrastructures. The most descriptive word I can think of to convey my eating club experience is comfortable. I was very good friends with almost every single member of my club. (Yes, there were a couple of jerks, but you take the bad with the good.) Its quite literally true that its almost impossible to be in an eating club and not have at least a hundred very close friends.
Even a residential college of 400-500 students is large enough that you cant know everybody well. Its about the size of a typical high school class with many of the same social phenomena taking place. In particular, it further subdivides into the usual cliques. Weve all been to high school. You know what Im talking about. But once the number of people in a group gets down below 150, a different social dynamic takes over. At that size, you really DO know everybody well. You see them and eat with them every day. If your high school cafeteria is like mine, after you buy your lunch, you head to the same table every day and eat with the same 10-15 close friends. Well, in an eating club, that same table is the whole dining room. Theres no need to synchronize going to meals with your friends because some will always be there. You know EVERYBODY. Its a fantastic social environment.
Obviously, Princetons clubs are self-selected in a way that residential colleges arent. But the criticism that they therefore are divisive does not logically follow. By the time you join a club at the end of your sophomore year, youve already been in a residential college of roughly 450 randomly assigned people for two years. Youve had a broad experience and made a variety of friends. Those friends dont go away. You eat at their clubs and they eat at yours using meal transfers -- very simple. You spend time at all the clubs, especially on party nights. Junior year, my girlfriend was not in my club. Senior year, she was (different girlfriend, that is). No big deal. Of my eight roommates junior and senior year, only one was in my club. I loved the fact that I had a circle of friends from my dorm, a different group from my eating club, a third network from my academic department, and two further circles from my two major extracurricular activities. These various groups of friends overlapped, but were separate and distinct in a very healthy way.
I concede that eating clubs are probably most appropriate for people who by their personality are joiners and that not everybody is one. Thats why 25% of Princeton upperclassmen choose another option, whether it be staying in their underclass residential college for another two years, joining one of two student-run co-ops, or cooking for themselves. Some people just eat at the Frist Campus Center. No problem. Different strokes for different folks. But I submit that most Ivy League students by nature ARE joiners. And those people who want to be more independent have a wider range of options at Princeton than they do at almost any other school. If youre a joiner, you win. If youre not, you still win.
Hey, eating clubs arent for everybody. But I think that the vast majority of the kind of high-achieving, sociable people who are drawn to the Ivy League would LOVE them. My point isnt that everyone should attend Princeton or join a club. But if youre thinking about Princeton for academic reasons (and, yes, I think I chose correctly), then dont be dissuaded by any CC eating club nay-sayers.
Think about it. Princeton and Harvard have the highest retention and graduation rates in the country. Princeton has by far the highest alumni donation rates. The totally unscientific and anecdotal Princeton Review lists Princeton in its happiest students category. If youve ever attended a Princeton reunion, you know that alumni are wacky in love with the institution. If Princeton students and graduates are THAT fond of the place, how could eating clubs be anything but a great experience for the vast majority of people who go through there?
But dont take my word for it. Visit the campus, talk to the students and form your own opinion. Just dont take as gospel the word of anybody who criticizes the eating clubs from the distant vantage point of New Haven or Cambridge, okay?
Wow, thanks to everybody who replied and thanks especially for the kind words. I think your responses speak to the fact that, in contrast to many other schools, there are virtually no Princeton students or alumni who post here on CC about their experiences. Id like to think that this means Princeton students are busy studying and/or enjoying themselves. I hope its a healthy (and mature) sign that so few Princetonians spend their time telling others how nice they have it. Ill post more later and try to answer as many questions as I can.
First, some facts. Foreigngrad, you have your facts straight. There are 11 clubs of which 5 are selective, 5 are not, and one seems to go back and forth. Collectively, there is comfortably more club capacity than there is student body to fill it. All of the clubs except one accept more students than not. (The one exception is the smallest selective club, which usually takes about 40% of students who try.) If you want to join a non-selective club, you WILL get into one. Students can sign up for the non-selective clubs in groups up to six. A computer picks the new members and, chances are, youll get into your first choice club with up to five of your friends. Even two groups of six trying together have pretty good odds of both making it into their top pick.
Philntex, you summarize the Princeton social landscape very well. Residential colleges are a terrific idea and, at Princeton, you get two years of that experience. After that, if you like that concept of a smaller social infrastructure within a larger university, the eating clubs are the ultimate personal comfort zone, as Foreigngrad aptly puts it. If you want something less intimate, you can choose from a variety of options, whether structured (another two years of residential college), unstructured (cook for yourself or eat at the Frist Campus Center) or something in-between (joining a student-run co-op, where you plan your meals and cook together).
Inhaven, you ask a great question. In contrast to the stereotype, I think eating clubs are actually MORE inclusive than residential colleges. Dont get me wrong. I love the idea of residential colleges, both at Princeton as well as Harvard and Yale. But at 400-500 students each, compare them in size to your high school class. Theyre still big enough that you cant know everybody well. As a result, theres still the phenomenon where the African-American students are more likely to sit at one table, the Latino students at another, etc. Similarly, the athletes and artsy types also hang out together. Name any standard high school clique and it probably applies to some extent. When you dont know everybody, you tend to self-select toward those you know best. Thats simple human nature and true on every campus in America.
But the eating clubs, at 100-150 members each, are small enough that you DO know everybody in your club. You see them every day. That familiarity makes all the difference in the social dynamic. The clubs are a true social mélange. If you visit a club during meal time, I GUARANTEE that you will not see the African-American students at their own table, athletes at another and so forth. (Parenthetically, even the clubs with the most aristocratic reputations have had African-American presidents in recent years.) Now, Ill concede that, while each of Princetons residential colleges has almost exactly a 28% minority presence (the overall percentage on campus), the percentage at the clubs is generally lower than that. Critics like to seize upon this as prima facie evidence that the clubs are divisive. But I assert that, at the eating clubs, there is more GENUINE interaction between various cliques than there is in any residential college, at Princeton or anywhere else. Which is more important, having exactly the same 28% proportion in every single residential college or promoting STRONG bonds between people of different backgrounds?
Heres one snippet of perspective. When the eating clubs elect new officers every year (president, social chairman, dining chairman, etc.), in contrast to every other student election Ive ever seen, there are no posters or speeches -- no campaigning at all, for that matter. At my club, we took nominees on a Wednesday, held a vote the following Friday, announced the new officers that night over dinner, gave them a standing ovation and threw a big party that night - simple as that. The point is that theres no need for campaigning because everybody ALREADY knows everybody as well as possible.
It comes back to a point in my original post. If, as a minority student or anybody else, you want the eating club experience, you will find a warm, welcoming reception. If clubs arent your cup of tea, for whatever reason, Princeton offers more other options for you than any college I know of.
Inhaven, I think you hit the nail right on the head. Your comfort level will depend on your open-mindedness. As with any human organization, if you EXPECT not to feel welcome, you probably wont feel welcome. But if you come with an open mind, its quite likely that youll be very comfortable, I assure you.