Reunions 2010: Using your degree

The following story is included in PAW’s 2010 Reunions Guide, available on campus May 27.

By Jennifer Albinson ’05

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Illustration by Hadley Hooper

Jennifer Albinson ’05 teaches first grade at Malcolm X Academy in San Francisco.

It hit me one winter day in my first year out of Princeton.
Like so many classmates, I was living in New York.
Unlike so many classmates, at that moment, I was in
an elementary school cafeteria, scooping pickles onto a
5-year-old’s lunch tray and then taking a few back when
she squealed “Too many!” As I offered her a spoonful of
corn, I said to myself, “Seriously, is this how I’m using my
Princeton degree?” And, with no one but the 5-year-old
to respond to my question, I spoke up again. “I think the
answer is apparently ‘yes.’ ”

The “apparently yes” moments have been plentiful, especially as an elementary school teacher. They have ranged
from the poignant (despairing that my training in Latin
American history hadn’t prepared me to handle a situation with a student and her potentially abusive mother)
to the disgusting (mopping a child’s regurgitated lunch
off my classroom floor). Sometimes the Princeton banner on my classroom wall just fades into the background,
indistinguishable from the artwork and colorful charts that
surround it. Other times, it’s like a bright orange billboard,
announcing to me and anyone else who will listen that
“only people who’ve actually used their degree deserve to
go to Reunions.”

On the occasion of my eighth journey to the fifth
reunion tent — and my first major reunion — I decided to
explore how I conceived of my Princeton training and
what reality emerged.

Conception: If I take John McPhee ’53′s seminar class
in creative nonfiction, I’ll be joining the staff of The New
Yorker
within nanoseconds of graduating. Reality: The
closest I come to creative nonfiction is writing homework
packets. Take-away: First graders appreciate quality writ-
ing, too; The New Yorker might do well to consider them
potential subscribers.

Conception: My thesis adviser and I will have a long
and fruitful relationship, in which she continues to offer
insights into my scholarly work, and I, in turn, make her
proud by publishing book after book. Reality: We’re still
in close touch, but she’s turned out to be much more useful
in procuring cast-off children’s books from her local library,
as well as spotting 50-percent-off sales on Play-Doh.
Every few weeks, she sends me a new package of goodies.
Take-away: Thesis advisers advise more than theses.

Conception: Leading an Outdoor Action trip was a
really fun way to kick off each year of college, but when I graduate, it will be time to put away the compass and
camp stove. Reality: While some of the skills I learned
haven’t come in handy (to my surprise, I’ve not yet needed
to splint a broken femur), the supposed soft skills of group
dynamics, “leader radar” (imagine Rick Curtis ’79 pivoting
his open palm over his head as you say those words), and
conducting an effective debrief have become the essential
hard skills of my career. Take-away: You may think you’re
just chatting while you wait for the murky creek water to
iodize, but you’re really résumé-building.

Conception: My Princeton friends were amazing companions in precepts and on The Street, but now that we’re
all moving to disparate corners of the globe, we’ll likely
fall out of touch. Reality: Whenever I’ve felt my Princeton
education had wildly unprepared me for the trials of adult
life, it was my friends from that very same institution who
supported me through the challenge at hand. Sometimes
that support was coming from places like a refugee camp
on the Burmese border, but it nonetheless came immediately and unconditionally. Take-away: All those long study
breaks at the Bent Spoon were worth it.

As an undergraduate, if I had to pinpoint the experiences — the courses, the relationships, the extracurricular
activities — that would prove meaningful to my young
adult life, I probably could have identified them easily.
However, I could not have explained accurately why these
experiences would be relevant. I went through Princeton
thinking I was learning one thing and enriching myself in
one way, but then I graduated and realized that I’d actually
been learning an infinite list of other skills that would be
fundamental to my success as an adult.

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Jennifer Albinson ’05

And so, next fall, as I shake the dust
off my Princeton banner, I’ll coolly
inform it to stop giving me pangs of
insecurity. I am using my degree, and
perhaps, I’m using it exactly as Princeton
intended me to: in a way that is so
integral to the fabric of my life as to
be rendered almost invisible.