Sunday, October 18, 2009

Alumni Remembrances: Mercedes Naficy D’Angelo ’84

This segment is back! Read the memories and musings about Princeton from those people who've lived in your dorm room, eaten in your dining hall and run the same path to that 9 a.m. class before you.

This week, we're featuring a piece written by Mercedes Naficy D’Angelo ’84, Principal at Naficy Consulting and President of the Princeton Club of Northwestern New Jersey!


"Eulogy for a Fallen Club"

Culture shock wasn’t really new to me when I first walked on campus that beautiful fall morning in 1979.

The first born offspring of an unexpected union between an Iranian and Puerto Rican who had serendipitously ended up at Iowa State for post graduate work, I was born into cultural tension. Having lived in both of my parents’ fatherlands and learned both of their mother tongues, I was quite accustomed to being the outsider, the different one; the unusual specimen to be regarded with curiosity. More importantly, I was used to feeling that peculiar sensation of not fitting in. I communicated differently, processed information differently. I was different. And I learned to wear my difference with pride. Every cultural encounter that had come my way had been handled, dealt with, internalized, disseminated and understood, so that I could honestly say I had earned the right to walk proud despite my obvious differences from everyone else.

I was surprised, even hurt to notice during those first few weeks at Princeton that the pain of being different was still possible. I would look at the blond, fair eyed, beautiful people who were the clear majority and find that they didn’t really fit into any of the ‘types’ or people that I had met and learned to interact with during my international life. These were the people one read about in books; the American archetype: healthy, vibrant, athletic, blond, blue eyed boys and girls with gleaming white teeth, indicating the privilege they had been born into – if not the privilege of wealth, then certainly the privilege of opportunity that so many in the world never experience.

Princeton was great at many things in those days, but I can honestly say that it was terrible at helping freshmen – especially those from different backgrounds – settle in. My Resident Advisor (RA) was …who was he? I don’t think I even spoke to him after the first day. So I was pretty much on my own. And while I had a lot of fun and made a lot of friends, I can honestly say that I didn’t really find a niche, that first year at Princeton. Until the day I walked into Dial Lodge; on that day I walked in and found myself at home for the first time at Princeton.

Dial was a non-selective Club; and as such, a testament to how random selection can bring together a diverse group of students. It appealed to me because it was non-selective. Princeton in the late 70s and early 80s was – in my opinion – segregated, whether by design or by choice. I didn’t want to join a minority group, since I had never felt wholly a part of any one group because of my own multi-cultural background. I wanted to be integrated within an inclusive and diverse group. I definitely did not want to cocoon within a subgroup of the University, whether the Latinos or the “Third World Center.” The name alone was enough to send me running in the opposite direction.

And I couldn’t get past the idea of bickering. The very word seemed incredulous to me. The concept that a group of people would decide if I were good enough – fun enough, smart enough, cute enough, interesting enough - to join them seemed absurd. Selectivity was an anathema to the essence of who I was. Imagine my surprise when decades later my daughter decided to bicker, only to have her heart broken not once but twice by a process in which she was determined not good enough to join. And now, my other daughter is deciding to bicker, too. She may have better luck than her sister, but I have reservations about any Club that selects its members based on criteria that are subjective, willful and partisan.

The sun dial on the building is the only reminder to students of this new millennium of Princetonians of a Club that made such an incredible difference to me. Now the Bendheim Center for Finance, Dial Lodge was a surprisingly diverse and incredibly inclusive place where I could go and be myself – no questions asked. Dial was where an artistic Cuban-American boy could break bread with a feisty Native American; where a vociferous crew of rowdy wrestlers hung out with introspective intellectuals; where a Catholic, Jewish and Protestant believer could huddle together on the couch for three hours on a Sunday afternoon determined to fill every damn square of the NY Times crossword puzzle.

I have of late been drawn into the efforts of Cannon, Elm and Dial Lodge alumni to renovate and open the former Cannon Club. What we will name it and whether it will be selective or not are still being debated even as we finalize the contracts to start breaking ground. I am sure the debates will be spirited; I pray that our decisions will be good ones for future generations of Princetonians. I selfishly hope that we can bring back to life some of the signature Dial events like Jesse Bratcher’s fabulous fried chicken on Wednesday night followed by the Wednesday Night Club, or Yasgur’s Farm on the Lawn, Champagne Jam, Barbarian Day… well, maybe not all of them. Most of all, I hope that we will succeed in creating an environment not only of diversity but also and more importantly and environment of inclusion; one that celebrates our differences.

At my 25th reunion this past June, I was talking to a fellow Dial alumnus about the good times we had shared at Dial. He was one of the blue-eyed, blond boys with gleaming white teeth who actually chose to join Dial. He echoed my sentiments precisely when he said: “Dial was what kept me sane. It was the only place on campus where people were normal.” In praise for non-selectivity I have to say that even though you weren’t sure who was going to end up at your Club, every year at sign-in you knew that it was going to be fine. We would welcome this diverse group of sophomores into our Lodge, and ultimately into our hearts.

Mercedes Naficy D’Angelo ’84 S83 P11 P12


Anonymous said...

While I think this is a fair article, it is also long past 1984. There are certainly places all over campus where diversity abounds. Maybe it's not perfect, but it sure beats the "Third World Center" - whatever that was.

As for bicker, it sucks. You can't take it personally - there are many members in clubs who have often been hosed once, twice, even three times before they get in. It's just a difficult, albeit shitty, process.