A Look Back at the Great Class of 2021

What makes up the Class of 2021? Some might argue the class has been defined by shared realities amid unprecedented times: remote learning, virtual community, and a socially distant final semester. But beyond those collective experiences, the Class of 2021 is a diverse group of athletes, artists, activists, and scholars whose individual perspectives have shaped their time in the Orange Bubble, and whose actions will continue to impact Princetonians for years to come.

In 2017, they made it through what was then Princeton’s most selective year of admissions, with just 6.1 percent of a record 31,056 applicants accepted. (That record was overcome the next year, and shattered again this spring in an admissions cycle upended by the pandemic).

The 1,314 students that enrolled in the fall traveled from 46 states and 59 countries beyond the U.S. Of those students, 22 percent self-identified as Asian American, 11 percent as Hispanic/Latino, 8 percent as African American, 5 percent as Multiracial, and less than 1 percent as Native American. The class was slightly more female than male, 13 percent legacy, and 17 percent first generation.

Nearly 25 percent of the class will graduate with a Bachelors of Science in Engineering (BSE) degree, with the other three quarters receiving a Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) degree. Computer Science was the most popular concentration for ’21s, followed by followed by the School of Public and International Affairs, Economics, and Politics.

Beyond their academic achievements, members of the Class of 2021 have earned a host of athletic and creative accolades during their time on campus, and pushed for meaningful change like many generations of Tigers before them.

In this issue, we look back on the past four years.

Header Art by Ashley Chung

Year One

Freshman Year.

Sporting colorful residential college t-shirts, 1,315 undergraduates from across the world were led into the University Chapel on Sept. 10 for Opening Exercises, a centuries-old tradition marking the formal start of the academic year. It was the first time the entire Class of 2021 would be in one space, together.

“It is our New Year’s Day,” President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 told the group. “A day when Princeton starts afresh.”

That year saw advocacy and administrative change that would impact student life for years to come.

After a hard-fought campaign to reform the Honor Code, students passed four Undergraduate Student Government (USG) referenda relating to the policy. Their implementation was eventually delayed by the administration, but throughout the class’s four years on campus, students have continued to critique the system and push for change.

After intersession, the year saw a classroom controversy after Professor Lawrence Rosen used the n-word repeatedly as part of an anthropology class, and some students walked out of his class. The campus reaction was visceral, with op-ed after op-ed appearing on the pages of The Daily Princetonian and some students dropping the class. Eventually, the class was cancelled altogether. (The following year, the new class of freshmen would be assigned “Speak Freely” as their mandatory summer reading.)

The year also saw the implementation of new certificate programs in Asian American Studies and Journalism, after significant amounts of planning, advocacy, and hard work on the part of students and faculty alike.

One administrative change approved that academic term would tangibly change life in the Orange Bubble for future Tigers. Through a somewhat-contentious vote, faculty approved the proposal for a reformed calendar, moving fall exams to December — before Winter Break — swapping out intersession with a “Wintersession,” a new space in the calendar designed for non-graded learning and growth opportunities.

The change wouldn’t take effect until the Class of 2021’s senior year. Needless to say, amid unprecedented times, it played out differently than administrators anticipated. The first Wintersession, like the bulk of the class’ senior experience, would occur online.

Banner photo courtesy of ODUS.

Year Two

Sophomore Year.

Sophomore year started with what at the time seemed like an unprecedented break with tradition: The new freshman class was so rowdy — and so drunkenly in need of McCosh Health Center’s services — that first-years were banned from eating clubs mid-way through “Frosh Week.” The following year, the ban would be expanded to prohibit first-years from the Street during Orientation entirely. The year after that? A pandemic got in the way.

It was the last academic year all members of the Class of 2021 would spend in the Orange Bubble from start to finish — and in retrospect, as a collective, they made the most of it. After an (alleged) prank, the door to Tower Club wound up unhinged, propped up by a street sign at the corner of Prospect and Washington. The first — and most popular — iteration of Tiger Confessions, the anonymous Facebook discussion group, emerged. And who could forget? The once-in-a-generation experience of a traditional Princeton bonfire, held after the football team finished the season undefeated. A “Huck Farvard” sign was set ablaze as thousands packed into Cannon Green.

Some students spent the year gathering at community-wide town halls, demanding the University “Ban the Box” — eliminate the mandatory conviction history question for Princeton applicants, which to this day remains on the application. Others spent a week camped out in front of Nassau Hall, protesting the institution’s practices surrounding Title IX. (Some of those same concerns have recently been raised again by members of the Class of 2021.)

It was a year of declaring concentrations, drinking coffee (Coffee Club was first founded in Campus Club that year, by a fellow class member no less), fulfilling distribution requirements, and cheering Tigers to victory.

It was a year like any other before it, and Triangle Club’s annual adage rang as true as ever: “Nothing ever happens in Princeton.” Blissfully, it seemed as if nothing ever would.

Banner photo courtesy of ODUS.

Football on Fire

Year Three

Junior Year.

Junior year saw an exciting guest in Richardson Auditorium. In late September, students packed into the hall to watch Microsoft’s Brad Smith ’81 in conversation with The Daily Show’s host, Trevor Noah. In a few days, the famed comedian will return to campus virtually — this time, as the Class Day speaker for the Class of 2021’s commencement ceremony.

The academic year of 2019–20 would prove the most disruptive to the Princeton experience in a century. But before all students would be mandated to leave campus and return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the junior class saw a triumph like no generation before it: Princeton became the first school to secure 500 Ivy League championship titles, with a long-dreamt victory by the wrestling team setting the Tigers over the edge.

On March 11, students were told to pack up and go home. Amid fear, chaos, and a profound sense of loss, some students embraced what felt like “the end of the world.” Half-empty vodka bottles, solo cups, uneaten food, and broken furniture littered Henry Courtyard. In what some would later look back on as horrendously irresponsible violations of public health protocol, many students partied harder than perhaps ever before in their time in the Orange Bubble — or ever after, as it turned out.

As the semester wound to a close, students adjusted to remote learning, remote community building, and remote religious life. Amid a national reckoning over the summer, students debated issues of racial justice online, as one prominent professor referred to a former Black student activist group as a “local terrorist organization” and the University removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from the policy school and residential college.

More than 60 percent of students polled that spring said they would “seriously consider” a leave of absence if the following fall semester were to be remote, but ultimately, enrollment for the academic year 2020-21 would only be around 13 percent lower than usual. For the most part, despite uncertainty and burnout, students entered their final year at Princeton as they had started their first: together.

Banner photo courtesy of Jeongmin ‘JM’ Cho ’21 (@lonelycovidtiger)

Timeline
COVID Contemplations
The Wilson Name

Year Four

Senior Year.

The Class of 2021 started its senior year scattered. Fewer than 300 undergraduates were given permission to live on campus in the fall due to the pandemic.

The group lost some of its members to the Class of 2022, but not as many as anticipated. For the most part, they remained a collective. But their togetherness would manifest not in Street run-ins, but in long-distance phone calls; not in late nights at Firestone Library, but in late night Zoom meetings; not in residential college communities, but in home communities. Students tried to create community virtually, with some glimmers of success (Though one big attempt, a virtual Lawnparties concert featuring Jason Derulo, was met with criticism for its price tag).

Some seniors stayed home in the spring too. The members of the class that came to campus would spend their final semester in a drastically different place than the one they had left the previous spring. Eating clubs were closed. Most in-person student activities were prohibited. But seniors tried to make the most of their last few months together, even at a distance.

Despite the challenges of Zoom, it was also a year of activism. Undergraduates and graduate students in the policy school pushed for curricular change and anti-racist action. Students in the American Whig-Cliosophic Society deliberated how their organization honors Sen. Ted Cruz ’92. Community members pushed to redefine the University’s relationship with the town and rallied in response to University anthropologists’ handling of MOVE bombing victims’ remains. And after over a year of deliberation and continued activism from Divest Princeton, the Resources Committee put out a set of fossil-fuel related recommendations.

The end of the year included some high notes. Students started getting vaccinated, with some receiving the shot on campus in late April. Princeton Athletics advanced to the final stage of its reopening plan, with senior rowers, softball players, and track & field athletes able to get in some end-of-year competition. And seniors learned they’d celebrate commencement in person, with each able to bring two guests to Princeton Stadium for the ceremony.

It’s unclear what the senior class will remember about their last few months as Princeton students — a semester defined by restrictions on campus life, burnout, and loss, as well as the beginnings of hope for a post-pandemic world. One thing is for certain: commencement 2021 will be one for the history books.

Banner photo by Candace Do, featuring Shalaka Madge ’21

Cruz Controversy

Grad College

Grad College.

To finish your graduate degree amid a once-in-a-century pandemic is one thing. To do so at one of the most rigorous and prestigious universities in the world is another. This year’s departing graduate students saw a completion to their time at Princeton unlike any class before them. But even apart from the pandemic, their experience in the Orange Bubble has been one of bearing witness to history.

At the start of 2019, the University heralded the most diverse admitted class of graduate students in its history. That winter, just two months after a vigil in Chancellor Green marked the third year of Xiyue Wang’s detainment in Iran, the history graduate student landed safely at Newark Airport.

When undergraduates were told to leave campus mid-March of 2020, most graduate students stayed. Some fought for the University to provide them with adequate sick leave, universal policies, and enrollment-status extensions. Several academic departments suspended graduate school admissions, aiming to prioritize their current students, and by summer, labs had begun to reopen for some graduate programs.

The year 2020 also saw a tragic loss for Princeton’s graduate school: Cassidy Yang, a fifth-year student of integrative genomics, died in a car crash in December. Yang had been expected to complete her dissertation in May 2021, and her advisor, Professor Joshua Shaevitz, remembered her as “the lifeblood of the lab.”

As they remember those who are no longer with them and celebrate the achievements of those who are, this year’s graduate class steps into a world that desperately needs them. With unrelenting courage, soft-spoken wisdom, and a strong sense of social responsibility, they ready themselves to meet those needs.

Banner Photo by Jon Ort ’21

What is closure for the Class of 2021?

By Remy Reya ’21

We were all accustomed to sitting with strangers in our first days on Princeton’s campus. The newness of the place demanded some degree of shameless self-promotion in order to build our networks of peers beyond those we would eventually encounter in classes and extracurriculars. During orientation, we found ourselves constantly surrounded by strangers, but still willing to look past the unfamiliarity to delve into some of life’s most important questions, like: “did you do OA or CA?” In those early days, sitting with strangers was the norm.

As we entered our sophomore year, many of us had already begun carving out our niches on campus. Our interactions with strangers became more sparse and more targeted. We ran after strangers passing through Frist Campus Center to promote our shows; we complimented strangers on the Tiger Confessions Facebook page (or tore them down in the comments); we swayed alongside strangers at our hard-earned bonfire.

As juniors, suddenly, we were the ones bickering the bickerees and evaluating the auditionees. First-years and sophomores looked to us for advice on classes and work-life balance, and we overconfidently delivered. We met plenty of new people — but in general, we found comfort in the pockets of campus we had defined for ourselves. We didn’t need to lean into the friend-making frenzy we had embraced in our first year as Princetonians.

Then, the world shut down. And we were left scattered across it, impossibly far apart with no reunion in sight.

The new digital landscape created some unexpected opportunities for connection, like Houseparty and the “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens” Facebook group. But two semesters fully online, stripped of the wholeness of the community we had envisioned ourselves inhabiting long before our letters of admission had arrived in the mail, were hard to bear. Many of the things that bound us had dissolved; no longer could we walk out of class with our cute seat neighbor or bump into former Zeemates at Late Meal. Classmates were lost to gap years, senior traditions were lost to the digital realm, and the physical dimensions of Princeton that made our lives here meaningful were lost to the new public health regime.

Senior year of college is usually a time when people lean into the connections they’ve built over the past three years — to the people and to the place. Our senior year was marked by the beginning of a rebuilding process, back toward normalcy, but not quite there yet.

But that process has given birth to something else beautiful. In pursuit of the stuff that has long defined Princeton as our home, we’ve harnessed the value of the little moments that serve as the foundation of community. We’ve exchanged knowing glances as the 5-minutes-to-closing bell blares in Firestone Library at 1:55 a.m. We’ve posed for selfies at local businesses together during ’21 in Town events. We’ve joined spontaneous Spikeball matches and frisbee games on Poe Field. We’ve populated dining halls, lounges, and study rooms, and we’ve occupied hundreds of black adirondack chairs across campus, six feet apart but more appreciative than ever to be only six feet apart. In many ways, we have begun to sit with strangers again.

And though the end of our time as college students looks radically different from the experience we imagined inheriting, our relationships within this community are in many ways just beginning. For generations, Princeton alumni have gathered across the world and returned to the campus beyond graduation, embracing each other with the same mutual commitment that has bound us as undergraduates. Because of this continuity of community, perhaps we won’t have to wonder about finality in such stark terms; perhaps we can continue to sit with strangers for many years to come.

As we venture into the world beyond Princeton, let us always remember the unbelievable strength and resilience of the community we’ve built together. And let us always remember how communities like this are made. It all starts with one question: “OA or CA?”

Banner photo by Ashley Chung.

CREDITS

WEB DESIGN

Anika Maskara

Brian Tieu

Ananya Grover

Thanya Begum

WEB GRAPHICS

Dimitar Chakarov

Katelyn Ryu

ORIGINAL TEXT

Marie-Rose Sheinerman

Zachary Shevin

COPY EDITORS

Celia Buchband

Isabel Rodrigues

Catie Parker

Cecilia Zubler

Genele Hua

Nathalie Verlinde


Senior Names used on the front cover of this website were compiled from the Res College Facebook on May 3, 2021. If you enjoyed this digital commencemnt issue, check out our Class of 2021 print issue and order a copy here.