This is not your father's university

In his first novel, "This Side of Paradise," F. Scott Fitzgerald described Princeton University in New Jersey as "rising, a green Phoenix, out of the ugliest country in the world." With its Gothic architecture, centuries-old social clubs, and famous alums like Fitzgerald, Princeton might seem the epitome of a university untouched by waves of fashion.

But compare the experience of a current sophomore, Perrine Meistrell, with that of her father, Gerry Meistrell (class of 1963), and it's clear that the Tiger, with its orange and black school colors, has indeed changed its stripes.

For one, Perrine wouldn't be there had the school not opened its doors to women - a move it made after Gerry's graduation. Today's students are far more diverse. The physical campus has changed, too. Although Gothic buildings still dominate, "there's been a tremendous amount of building," Gerry observes.

A 1960s grad also wouldn't recognize the course catalog. Offerings have shifted radically, most conspicuously in the sciences. Among the new departments and programs: computer science, biophysics, molecular biology, and operations research and financial engineering. Students have more freedom to design their courses of study, Gerry says: "When I was at Princeton, the concept of a minor was nonexistent."

But with this freedom has also come, paradoxically, greater pressure. "Once you're in college for a year, you start to realize that your grades matter," Perrine says. She and her peers have already started to think about jobs and life after college. In fact, it's hard to avoid: "You're always hearing about a career fair or somebody coming on campus to interview for jobs," she says.

Moreover, while Princeton may once have symbolized a ticket to success, students now feel there are no longer any guarantees. "When my dad went to Princeton, there was more of an assumption that if you did reasonably well, you'd get a good job," Perrine comments.

To parents, such concern can be puzzling. "I'm surprised by Perrine's focusing on the afterlife of college as early as she seems to be focusing on it," Gerry says.

His time at Princeton wasn't cut off from the outside world: "When I was in college, we had the Cuban missile crisis," he says, adding that his study at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs was "tied to current events and policy, so I never thought of it as an ivory tower." For today's students, he says, "it is a more pressured environment, at least in the sense of self-imposed pressure."

And then there's tuition. "I think you are very aware of the amount of money," Perrine says. This has also raised her level of demands: "When you're choosing your classes, and there's limited enrollment, you think, 'I'm paying all this money, and I don't even get the classes I want!' "

Gerry says he hopes Perrine will take the time to explore a bit. "I got introduced to opera at Princeton," he says. "I didn't have the sense that I needed a particular course because it was going to mean something to me after college; I saw it as a great opportunity to learn about a lot of different things."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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