Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A spiritual connection with the students

Walter Keith Griffin '10, an SJP alum and counselor, left, teaching the Opinion Journalism workshop. (Photo Credit: Joanne Yi)
By Walter Keith Griffin (SJP '05/Princeton '10)

This is the fifth straight summer that I've come to Princeton to engage in the world of ideas. It's strange thinking of the path I've taken since I took that first step off the Dinky in August 2005.

I started off as a student in the Princeton University Summer Journalism Program. After that summer, I applied to Princeton Early Decision. After gaining admission, I returned the following summer as a counselor, just one year removed from the new students. In 2007, I was the intern who organized the logistics of the program.

After returning last year as a counselor, however, I began to feel a bit of SJP fatigue. And then I returned this year.

Quite a lot has changed between 2008 and 2009. One of the best feelings was being able to come two days late, yet automatically connect with the students. For all of my talk about spirituality and my lack of it, I felt a very real, strong spiritual connection to these students.

I could look in their eyes and see in a way I've never been able to before, and what I saw left an automatic impression. I saw shyness. I saw pain. I saw passion. I see a thirst for knowledge. I see a desire to belong to a community not solely based on where they live or who they grew up with, but rather on the ideas they individually have, and how they interact with the ideas of each other.

When I saw all of these things, my heart just experienced the most wrenching feeling. I legitimately look at some of these kids and want to cry. Want to tell them, "I know."

I know about the self-doubt. I know about the need to distinguish yourself, even more so today, in a world that's growing increasingly competitive and where the divide between the intellectual elite and the general public is widening more than ever. I know that there are certain things you yearn to talk about, whether it's about yourself, about your views, or about your desires. But you just can't, for whatever reason. And I know about the shyness. There's one student in particular that, when I look into their eyes, I just want to tell them, "Do you know that I'm just like you?"

In a lot of ways, I'm still like all of these kids. I still reflect on a lot of the things I went through as a child, and the pain wells up in a way that shows in the grimaces, the winces, and the lines formed across my forehead.

Moreover, being an intellectual in a "welcoming" environment here at Princeton hasn't always worked out the way I imagined. There are positions that I've taken in life that even my most intellectual, open-minded friends won't be able to get past. In a lot of ways, it boils back down to identity for me. Whether I want to be completely free of an identity or find it in a place that is accepting, no matter what kind of views I have or someone else may have, remains the challenge.

Despite all of this, I feel that the best part of the program this year (and it's only the second day I've been here) is that I feel a family picking up the pieces and coming back together. The directors' efforts to incorporate the program's alumni in a greater capacity has paid off tremendously. We're all supportive of each other and working towards the same goal.

To a greater extent, this year's students have reminded me of why I come back every year. Whether I'm teaching a workshop on opinion journalism, or talking to them over meal discussions, or walking with them from lesson to lesson, I love being able to show them both my breadth of knowledge and my vulnerability.

But the most important thing I love is the fact that as much as they have to learn from us, I'm gaining so much insight into who I am through interacting with these students.

It's one of the reasons that makes Princeton home for me, and it feels so good to be back in the midst of family.

-- Griffin is a rising senior at Princeton, an opinion columnist for The Daily Princetonian and a 2005 alumnus of the Princeton University Summer Journalism Program. He was invited to return as a counselor this summer.

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