In Memoriam: Cara McCollum ’15 (February 6, 1992 – February 22, 2016)
Driving in Mercer County a week ago over treacherous icy roads, I felt lucky to make it home in the evening without incident. I could not have imagined that at the same time over in Salem County, one of my former students was not so lucky as she navigated her own way home. Spinning off a road and colliding into trees, Cara McCollum sustained massive head trauma that no brain surgery could repair. She died today never having made it to her first college reunion, but having lived her life with more dignity, grace, and intelligence than any 24 year old can hope to attain.
Cara was a terrific student whom I got to know in two media courses, including one for the editors and writers of The Princeton Buffer: A Film and Television Review. Within just a few weeks of working on this University blog Cara quickly became our go-to person for publicity and social media. Then she distinguished herself as one of our most entertaining and popular writers. Then she continued working on the blog long after her term was over. Everything Cara did she performed with enthusiasm, commitment, and no small amount of flair.
Cara’s voice was strong and vibrant. She used humor not just to entertain but also to analyze (often to devastating effect). She had an eye for the perfect quote, a way with colloquialisms, and a fondness for lists. Her writing was memorable and quotable, and always, always honest. Above all, it was effortlessly warm and witty, much like Cara herself. But don’t take my word for it—judge for yourself: https://princetonbuffer.princeton.edu/buffer-alumni/cara-mccollum/
Most people outside Princeton knew Cara in her role as Miss New Jersey, a state title- holder with a serious job and real responsibilities. Between her junior and senior years, Cara took a year off to perform all the many obligations that went along with her title. She received extensive on-the-job experience in civic and charitable work, gaining knowledge as valuable as anything learned in the classroom.
At the same time, she brought her impassioned public service commitments to her academic work and eloquently argued for the importance of compassion in everything we do. As any English major can testify, reading and writing about great works of literature educates our sensibilities and makes us more ethical subjects. Cara was the quintessential English major, with empathy to spare.
Cara was also one of the most giving and gracious students I have had the honor to teach at Princeton. It is not every day that a student creates a successful charity like “The Birthday Book Project,” which has delivered over 20,000 books to school children. Truth be told, Cara was making a gift of herself every day. In the predawn hours this morning, she delivered one more, the donation of her organs, a gift that will save multiple lives and keep on giving for generations to come.
Cara brought her particular mix of seriousness and play, charisma and smarts, to her senior thesis, a creative non-fiction work titled “All That Glitters: The Pretty, The Plastic, and the Problematic of the Miss America Pageant.” Part exposé, part memoir, and part manifesto, Cara’s clear and candid consideration of the pageant world was a fascinating read, and it convinced this reader that indeed all that glitters may not be gold.
Through interviews with recent contestants and her own quite moving stories, Cara demonstrated that the pageant, perhaps America’s first reality TV show, can do more harm than good, particularly when it comes to standards of beauty and matters of race and class. She wondered aloud about all the television pre-shows and “stupid pageant answer” videos devoted to degrading contestants and mocking their intelligence before they had even stepped foot on the runway, not to mention the cruel tweets, embarrassing pop-up bubbles, and humiliating rituals during the show, like sitting on stage for two hours in what contestants call the “loser’s lounge” trying to hold it together in front of a national audience.
It takes courage to subject one’s own life to this kind of scrutiny, but once again Cara brought a wit and wisdom that provided its own best argument for why one should never underestimate a pageant contestant. For Cara her senior year was cathartic. She ended her thesis on a sobering image, not the glittering crown but the heavy crown—a crown that symbolized all the pressure, scrutiny, and even ridicule that winners must endure. But I firmly believe that the yearlong process of writing about her public life replaced the heavy crown with a much lighter one. Cara’s brave, brainy, and beautiful thesis was a crowning achievement all its own.
When I met Cara’s family and partner last June on Class Day, I told them that Cara was so instrumental to the success of Princeton’s first film and television blog that there was nowhere she could go where we wouldn’t find her. Sadly, I was wrong. But I am so deeply grateful to have had the chance to see Cara come into her own, not only as a talented writer, a sharp thinker, and a gifted speaker, but also as a genuinely lovely human being.
We will miss her here in the halls of McCosh.
Louis W. Fairchild Class of ’24 Professor of English