12 June, 2010
Princeton does not train you to be any one thing. At Princeton you learn to learn, and to be really good at whatever you decide to do. If I had one word to summarize my Princeton education, it would be demystification.
I remember a night from the fall of 2006. I stayed awake in the Forbes basement, struggling over Math homework, fearing that Princeton may have made a mistake by giving me admission. On those nights, my heart would sink with shame because I knew that there were endless resources at my fingertips but all I wanted to do at 3 am was to give up and sleep. Multivariable Calculus seemed like a code I had to break, some metaphysical puzzle that I had no chance of deciphering--not when my competition included Math Olympiad winners from South Korea and Romania.
And then, four years later, on June 1st 2010, I graduated from Princeton. I won a prize for my thesis and a travel drawing scholarship. I was all set to start a Master of Architecture program at Harvard in the fall. For four years I had lived in this castle with free wireless, exquisite libraries, some of the greatest minds from around the world, free beer (though, of course, I don't drink!), trimmed grass and paved pathways. Now it was time to leave.
As a tour guide I had told hundreds of prospective students about the tradition of the Fitzrandolph Gate: that, according to legend, students were not allowed to walk out of the center gate into the town. If they did so they would put their graduation at risk. Now, at graduation, our whole class of about 1200 was walking out the gate and also, symbolically, into the real world.
There was no moment of epiphany. There was no transcendental feeling of elation. Was this the beginning of a new era in my life? It didn't really feel like it. Rather, it was just one of a series of graduation events and by now I was really tired of it all. With the hundreds of cheerful parents pointing cameras at us on that hot, hot day, I smiled in the biggest camera for my mother in Karachi [they were showing this live on the Princeton website], and then tried to get out of there as soon as possible. My spectacular exit from Fitzrandolph had already taken place many months ago.
That is what I mean by demystification: to be able to take the world on your own terms. To think critically when Jeff Bezos, our Bacalaureate speaker, tells us that our life really begins tomorrow. At Princeton, I learned a little bit about everything and a lot about one thing: Architecture. Princeton taught me to ask "why" and gave me the confidence to say "I don't know." I learned to clearly articulate my stance on an issue, while being aware and respectful of other points-of-view.
I was supposed to leave Princeton the morning after graduation, at 5 am. I had planned to get a little sleep that night. But there was so much to pack, store, and trash that I had to work through the night. Angela and Hina helped a lot. We made a trip to the Wa to get soda and saw so many familiar faces.
I had already given some of my drawings and paintings to friends. I stored some in Forbes College. And there was yet other artwork that I didn't particularly want, but that was too precious to give away; all that had to go in the trash. Then there were the books. I made a trip to the yard sale tents and dropped off a box full of some really good books. I even gave away my first copies of canonical works like Le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture.
And yet... -- and now I recall how Jeff said we should be confident that we are perfectly right while knowing that we are also perfectly wrong -- and yet, here I contradict what I said earlier about demystification. Even though I tried to be detached, there were memories situated in this place I was leaving. I had lived in this campus for four years of my life. There was mystery, epic drama, here I had evolved as a person. Earlier that evening, I had to go up to the architecture building to back up all my files. I wanted to find one of Princeton's orange carts on the way. It gave me an excuse to wander through the campus, and it reminded me of Kinga's solitary walk through the Princeton campus the night before she said goodbye to it. There was a strange feeling of elation as well as a strong sense of loss and melancholy. As the sun set I went up and down the steps of Whitman, through the various arches, and along some of the manicured walkways -- and I felt like Dylan Thomas's Poem in October.
[PS: I will be starting a Master of Architecture program at Harvard this fall. My new blog is called Every Cloud Has A Silver Lightning.]