An Interview with Cara Khalifeh, PPP Treasurer

The Princeton Perspective Project (PPP) is an initiative by Princeton students against the expectation of “effortless perfection.” Our seasonal series in partnership with PPP interviewed professors, undergraduate students, and graduate students to hear their thoughts on expectations, challenges, failures, and growth through it all. In this segment of our Seasonal Series, we hear from Cara Khalifeh, the Treasurer of the Princeton Perspective Project. 

Cara Khalifeh sitting on a red bench in central park with the NYC skyline in the background.
Cara Khalifeh ’24

Cara is currently a junior from the Class of 2024 from Woodland Park, New Jersey. She is majoring in Psychology on the pre-med track while also pursuing a Certificate in Global Health. Outside PPP, she is also a member of SIFP, Matriculate, and does research in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. 

Agnes Robang (A): What drew you to the Princeton Perspective Project and made you decide to get involved? 

Cara Khalifeh (C): I learned about PPP at the start of the spring semester in my sophomore year. At that time, I wasn’t part of any clubs or organizations about mental health, and I was very interested in the PPP as a Psych major that is interested in being a psychiatrist in the future. 

I identified with the PPP’s big emphasis on perspective (the namesake of the initiative). Many Princeton students are very smart, having gone through high school figuring stuff on their own and maybe not being too challenged. But when you get to Princeton, it’s different being surrounded by people also ridiculously smart. Stakes are higher, and you feel like you have something to prove. Princeton also doesn’t make it easy to maintain good grades the way it might have been in high school. It’s this kind of clout around Princeton where everyone is experiencing some struggle academically or personally, yet we all pretend like we are not. And I feel like this is a dangerous perspective to have especially if you feel like everyone is not struggling the same way you are. It can be dangerous for your mental health and can affect progress moving forward. 

I’ve experienced it too. My first year was virtual, and it was a rough transition to have, especially moving from high school. There was the feeling that I was alone. Geographically doing classes from home and virtually and not around Princeton people at all. I didn’t feel supported by the university very much. I also think that that’s a unique experience – only the juniors now would know what it is like to transition into college and be completely virtual. Having that perspective that you’re alone and struggling is really unfortunate, especially when you’re supposed to feel like you’re a part of the community. There is optional mental health support on campus, but you wouldn’t know about these opportunities unless you’re a part of the mental health interest on campus. 

What makes PPP very unique is that we’re not only looking to attract people from the mental health world; we’re also looking to attract people from the art aspect of campus as well (performing, drawing, visual, etc.). A big part of PPP is art. When we rebranded, our big goal in mind was to collaborate with art. Art is (1) really accessible for most people, (2) has lots of therapeutic elements, and (3) a really good way to express feelings through art. The Other Side of Me project combines an art form (photography) with the perspectives of students and faculty on this campus. Its ultimate goal is to make students, faculty, and staff feel less alone in their failure and by doing that, help others feel successful in handling their failure. There is power in sharing how we’re feeling and what we’re going through and how we deal with stress on this campus. These are the main aspects of PPP that distinguish it from other mental health organizations on campus. 

A:  How do you personally deal with stress? 

C: There are the textbook ways of dealing with stress that people talk about like going for a walk and taking time for yourself, but what I learned is that every person is different. Personally, I hate walking – I walk all day to get to class, and I guess it does help to walk and clear your mind, but it is unrealistic for me personally. It’s nice hearing other people say that they don’t take walks and do other things like watch YouTube for 10 minutes or TikTok for 5 minutes or do nothing for 20 minutes. That is powerful because when you start experimenting with different methods, that is when you realize what works better for you. There is no standard textbook way to do mental health or to deal with stress. I think being part of PPP has opened up a lot of opportunities for me to talk about it, and the goal is to expand the program, so that we can hear different people, and so there is more overlap of talking about these things on Princeton’s campus as well. And also, hopefully more collaborative efforts as well like this one! 

A: Right! Dealing with stress is definitely a very individual thing. I’ve only figured out myself in the past year that what really calms me down is reading books for fun, so I try to keep one that I read on the side for maybe 15 minutes when I start feeling stressed or anxious. I’ve also started cooking a bit too. Now, let’s switch gears a bit. You’ve mentioned that you do research. Can you tell me about how the PPP has influenced your experience or approach with research? 

C: Yes, I am currently doing research with Dr. Yael Niv for my JP. I started at the beginning of this year. I also did some research over the summer with Dr. Mirnova Ceide. I learned a lot from Dr. Ceide. I was able to hear her perspective on being an adult. When you’re in college, you think that once you graduate, you figure stuff out. That’s very deceiving because it’s not true. Dr. Ceide is a psychiatrist who transitioned into doing research a few years ago, so now 30% of her time is meeting with patients, and 70% of her time is for research. When I was working with her for 2 months, I learned quite a bit about research in general, and it’s a different type of stress doing research because most of the time it’s a long-term project. In general, students (or people in general) are not good with long-term projects. I know people who are struggling right now (I’m one of them) because you’re going to have to segment time appropriately on your own and have good time management. I feel like no one really ever taught us how to do that, and for your first 2 years in Princeton, you’re doing short-term assignments. When you get to your junior year, there is this looming big project. Your adviser should help you, but a lot of advisers are busy themselves and have lives and families, and it’s a burden for you that you’re not prepared for. 

I feel that the Psych department prepared us pretty well. I lucked out and have a good adviser. To throw students into that without preparing them is pretty unfortunate. I’ve had to deal with that as well, and for me, what I’ve learned the most this year that I’m hoping to take into my senior year is that, sometimes, you need to prioritize your well-being before your academics, which is really easier to say than it is to do. When you procrastinate, there’s a good reason for it. Your brain and body are exhausted and need a break. Procrastination is deemed a negative thing, but for students at Princeton, it’s not you delaying your work – it’s you needing to take a break before you have to sit through the ridiculous amount of work before you. The goal of my senior year is to better learn how to manage my stress and figure out what works for me because I think that that would help with my time management and that would help me learn how to tackle long-term assignments which I’m still learning how to do. 

A: Gotcha. It sounds like you’re really consciously preparing yourself for the senior thesis. Now, let’s start to wrap up the interview. What are some PPP events that the Princeton community can look forward to? 

C: We definitely want to do The Other Side of Me again. The last time we did this project was in 2018 or 2019. It would be interesting to hear the perspectives of students and faculty who have now dealt with Covid because Covid was a big cause of a lot of stress – rehousing, being kicked off campus, learning how to learn in a different way virtually, alone, and with no support. Personally, I am trying to unlearn some of those behaviors. In my first year, I did things alone, and it became normal for me not to ask for help but now that I’m on campus, I’m gravitating towards the same things. So, I’m trying to push myself to step out of what I had learned during the isolation of my first year. 

Now, the PPP is part of USG, so we have more funding and support to pull off a big event. People can also look forward to applications and interest forms coming out soon to get more members to be part of the PPP community to help with organizing events. People who have a passion for mental health should check out our website and apply. Also, I personally would like to do a little more storytelling and group conversations where students, faculty, and staff can have an honest conversation of what they’re dealing with and how they’re dealing with it. Hopefully, by speaking about it, they can teach someone or learn from the experience. 

Another big thing we were discussing as well was a mural in the Coffee Club. This is a really big task, so hopefully, it is something we can achieve in the next year or so. This would be a collaboration with mental health groups on campus and other individuals also interested in mental health. The idea of this mural is to have something more permanent and a representation of mental health on this campus. 

Thank you so much, Cara, for sharing your time and thoughts with us! I could feel your passion for this cause from the moment we first started speaking. Key takeaways that I personally got from our conversation were: (1) that it is important to figure out how you personally deal with stress as everybody has their own optimal way of relaxing, (2) that procrastination is a sign we need a break, and (3) the importance of conversations like this in destigmatizing the challenges and failures we all inevitably encounter. 

— Agnes Robang, Engineering Correspondent