I’ll spare Susan Patton the mockery; she’s had enough of it already. Her now-infamous letter published in Friday’s issue of The Daily Princetonian, Princeton University’s student newspaper, has turned out to be the orange-and-black shot heard round the world. Written as a piece of motherly advice to female undergraduates, the class of 1977 alumna tells women they ought to consider looking for their future husbands at Princeton, as early as their freshman year. Why? Because, she says, a Princeton grad will never again find herself in the company of so many intelligent and available men, who won’t run in intimidated panic when she mentions her alma mater.
Patton has fanned the flames of her argument in subsequent interviews, in which she says that she wishes her now-ex husband had attended a school like Princeton, and that she thinks women have a shorter “shelf life” than men do. Oof.
I graduated from Princeton in 2006, and in the days since Patton’s letter was unleashed, my former classmates and I have been trading quips, jabs, and bucketloads of snark. Seriously? She really said “shelf life?” She assumed that women won’t date men who are a year or two younger than they are? She actually wore orange and black in her TV interview? Is this an April Fool’s Day long con?
But my biggest problem with Patton’s letter to the editor has, oddly enough, nothing to do with feminism. Her argument is rooted in something that I find very dangerous for both male and female college students to buy into: that they should have their life partners effectively picked out by the time they’re walking out of Fitzrandolph Gate at graduation. Patton’s 100% right in asserting that who to spend your life with is one of the most important choices you’ll ever make (assuming you choose to have a life partner). In fact, it may well be the most important decision. But being ultra-decisive about turning a college sweetheart into a lifelong partner is what, in all too many cases, leads to unhappy relationships and divorces before the age of 30. I’ve seen it happen to friends and colleagues. Some people are ready for lifelong commitment at 22. Many aren’t, and my hunch would be that most recent Princeton graduates fall into the latter camp.
The fact of the matter is, Princeton is an incredibly sheltered place, for better or for worse, and its hundreds of bright-eyed, vernal undergrads often don’t realize that until several years later, when we start jokingly referring to college as “the orange bubble.” Alumni really do wear orange and black with pride. Student social life is completely restricted to the campus itself — Princeton is a small town with few restaurants or bars within a student’s budget, and the student-run eating club system dominates the social scene. Oddball traditions and campus lore abound on a level comparable to Hogwarts. It’s a wonderful place. The professors are top-notch, the visiting lecturers list resembles the guest lineup on Colbert. The students are largely optimistic, outgoing, and eager to learn (a “work hard, play hard” mantra is felt everywhere). For four ivy-shaded years, Princeton is everything and everything is Princeton. Is it reasonable for a fresh graduate to think she not only has it all together for her future (her thesis advisor was a Nobel laureate, after all!) but that she ought to be ready to go through that promising post-Princeton world with a partner who’s cut from the same (orange) cloth? It’s perfectly reasonable.
But 22 is just so young. After a short while living in a city like New York, D.C., or London, the career ambitions that made sense in a small college town can take a big swing (even notwithstanding the economic difficulties that have led many Gen-Y’ers down unexpected paths just to pay the rent). My freshman year roommate went into private equity and wound up in nonprofit development. My senior year roommate majored in English and didn’t realize until two years after graduating that architecture was her passion. One of my best friends had his sights on spending his adult life in New York before realizing he couldn’t stand it here. Me? Since Princeton, I’ve made a career change from journalism to marketing before recently settling into a hybrid of the two, moved from New York to San Francisco and back again, and amassed several dozen passport stamps (I’d barely left the East Coast before graduating). At 28, I’m a very different person than I was at 22 or even 25.
And, yes, this has changed my relationships. It’s changed what I look for, changed what I prioritize, and changed what I see myself valuing in a partner. This means I didn’t go back to my 5th reunion with any kind of ring on my left hand. I may not for my 10th reunion, either. And you know what? I don’t care, and in fact, I care even less than I did a few years ago. I met many wonderful people, male and female, at Princeton. I’ve met dozens more since who’ve never even set foot in New Jersey. There are artists, engineers, writers, thinkers, and world-changers aplenty out there, none of whom went to Princeton.
Susan Patton appears to have been stuck in the “orange bubble” for a little too long. But that orange bubble is very real, especially for a current student. Instilling the need to “nail down a Princeton-educated spouse” amid an already-packed agenda of classes, research, extracurriculars, and eventual job-hunting will only do more harm than good. The universe doesn’t revolve around Princeton, nor is the college some kind of magnetic anomaly that attracts the global population of men with more than half a brain. I respect Patton’s right to an opinion, and I hope her son (currently a junior) has an awesome time at Lawnparties this spring and all the best of luck with next year’s senior thesis.
But don’t even get me started on “shelf life.”
Caroline McCarthy (@caro) is the director of live content at global business news outlet Quartz. Prior to that she worked at Google as a marketer and at CBS and CNET as a journalist. In her spare time she enjoys mountain climbing, craft beer, and spending time with her cat, but definitely not all three at once.