Are you happy? Visit The College of New Jersey’s homepage and it is impossible to avoid statistics advertising students’ undying love for this institution. One blurb boasts that “85% of TCNJ’s most recent graduating class rated their undergraduate academic experience as either excellent or above average”; another proclaims that TCNJ has an almost unrivaled sophomore year retention rate. Listen in on prospective-student tours led by glittering, striped-shirted “Ambassadors,” and you’ll likely hear that students are enamored with their campus, their professors, and their peers.
But potential TCNJ recruits are not getting the full story.
Now in my junior year, after five and a half semesters’ worth of parties, club meetings, and discussions with scores of TCNJ students, I have noticed an unavoidable undercurrent of antipathy – a sense of unexpected dissatisfaction, a reluctant acceptance of lowered standards, and perhaps even mild (yet unconcealed) resentment.
It may not be a sentiment held by the majority, and it’s not widely acknowledged or discussed, but this simmering discontent is too consistent and pervasive to be ignored.
At the heart of the issue, it seems, is an identity crisis. Much more complex and consequential than any petty “North vs. South Jersey” debate, there is a recurring, implicit dialogue going on at TCNJ about the kind of school this really is – and what we are collectively projecting to the outside world.
For one, students here are constantly defining themselves to others. Even within New Jersey, TCNJ remains somewhat unknown. Thanks to the not-so-distant name change of 1996, when speaking of where they attend college, students are often forced to explain what the TCNJ acronym actually stands for. And whether we refer to our school as the former Trenton State College or by its current name, neither typically rings a bell for those outside New Jersey. Even Trenton State alumni are sometimes incredulous that the “T” in our title really does now stand for “the.”
After the College has been identified, many students find that the next question is whether or not they are education majors. Sophomore Andressa Leite observed, “People, mostly older folks, know TCNJ as Trenton State – as a teaching school. I have been met with surprised stares when I mention that I am not majoring in education here.” All of us are plainly aware that TCNJ has only recently transformed itself into a credible liberal arts college – in stark contrast to its past image as little more than a first-rate teacher factory.
But aside from concerns of academic perception, students routinely grapple with more fundamental questions of our institutional character: How smart are we? How smart are we supposed to be?
Promotional material produced by the College’s Public Relations Department constantly reminds us that TCNJ is considered a “public ivy,” but anecdotal evidence suggests the label might not yet be applicable. One student, who asked to remain nameless, gave a harrowing account of an incident that for him called into question whether admission standards are truly as high as we are led to believe:
“Last semester in a political science class, the professor asked a girl whether the incumbent party’s candidate had won the last presidential election. She finally stopped texting on her Blackberry and replied, ‘Can you define incumbent?’ I just about slammed my head on the desk.”
Of course, antipathy toward the College does not stem purely from academic concerns. Many students here rightly find the classes valuable and the professors engaging, but are highly disappointed with the surrounding cultural and social atmosphere. Unlike Princeton or other places closely associated with a proximate university, Ewing is clearly not a “college town”; there is very little active nightlife and definitely no discernible downtown area. And unlike nearby Rider University, our fraternity housing is required to remain off-campus. To access nighttime entertainment or some kind of Greek function, we have to put in quite a bit more effort than those on other campuses, where by comparison social opportunities are seemingly limitless.
College administrators and other consultants are now smartly working on a “Campus Town Project” that could make TCNJ more active and inviting. In the meantime, however, students must make the best of what is currently available.
I have found that for some, what TCNJ most sorely lacks is not necessarily a vibrant ‘night scene’ but an interesting and varied social life more generally. Some find refuge in fraternities and sororities, others in solitude or smaller gatherings – but a noticeable portion of us are often stuck somewhere in the middle.
We are thus disillusioned that in order to meet people after midnight, one must typically shell out $5 for frat party entry; and to those underwhelmed by cheap beer, Greek-life stereotypes, and blaring music that defies conversation, the experience often leaves much to be desired. One student attempted to identify the problem with these parties: “They become such a routine,” he said. “The same rowdy guys hanging around the beer pong table, the same crew playing flip-cup, the same girls grinding on sweaty dudes – and one another. It becomes stale and predictable.”
But for Andrew Kaplan, a freshman who transferred out of TCNJ halfway through this spring semester, more interesting frat parties would not have sufficed. “I felt disconnected with the student body – I felt a lack of intellectual stimulation. I felt trapped, so to speak, because of the location of the school. There are not many outlets outside of campus.”
Luckily for us, college students have endless ingenuity. Cluster enough people from our age bracket into a concentrated area, and some entertainment and camaraderie must inevitably result. But an environment more conducive to building meaningful relationships outside the dorms would nevertheless be a welcome addition. Too often it seems we must pursue substantive social lives in spite of our college’s atmosphere, rather than with assistance from it.
Of course, there is a context for these criticisms; most of us are happy with TCNJ. And after all, there is no school, regardless of prestige or endowment size, that is without faults. Every college or university – from Harvard, to NYU, to our humble suburban enclave – must deal with complaints from those who are dissatisfied for any plethora of reasons. That being said, we should not act as if these faults are nonexistent. Only upon acknowledging them more openly can we work to improve.
Sarah Burdick contributed reporting.