I feel a special bond with the Class of 2017, whose members began their undergraduate journeys at Princeton in the same year that I began my tenure as the University’s 20th president. In my Opening Exercises address to the class in the fall of 2013, I invited students to take advantage of their time at Princeton to explore “the question of what it means to live a successful human life.” Paraphrasing Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book The Honor Code, their Pre-read assignment, I opined that “living well has at least two parts to it: living a life that makes you happy and living a life that is of service to others.”
Now, four years later, as the Class of 2017 prepares to go out into the world, I have been impressed by how well many of our students have lived up to this ideal, finding countless opportunities to be happy in service to others. I want to share here a few examples of the special ways — often selfless and behind-the-scenes — that members of the Class of 2017 have chosen to serve the Princeton community, our local communities, and the wider world.
Many seek opportunities to serve their fellow students. There are RCAs like Kendall Bedford, described by Whitman College Director of Student Life Momo Wolapaye as a “cheerleader for everyone;” she is a rugby player, sometime Whitman Whale (the goofy, costumed mascot for the college) and a beloved mentor to her own zees and many others as well. Or Josh Morrison, a senior RCA at Rockefeller College, who Director of Student Life Amy Ham Johnson calls “the heart of Rocky since his first year.” Josh has also been a member of the College Council, a Princeton Preview captain, and a SHARE peer.
Others serve by helping to facilitate the artistic, intellectual, and athletic life of the Princeton community. Naman Jain, chair of the USG Projects Board, spent “countless hours,” according to Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students Tom Dunne, over and above the board’s regularly scheduled time slot every Thursday evening, working with student group leaders to apply for and secure funding for their events. He has also served as the creative director of Princeton South Asian Theatrics and was president of the nationally ranked Princeton Cricket Club.
Another force in the USG is Jason Adler, who has coordinated its popular free movie program, managing the budget and selecting films for student showings at the Garden Theatre every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. Jason has also served as the publicity director for Triangle, president of Grind Arts Company, and Princeton Preview captain for Butler College.
Vanessa Smith has been a stalwart member of the Princeton women’s basketball team for the past four years. She is, says Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students Bryant Blount, “the consummate teammate.” Even more important than her athletic prowess, however, is what Blount calls “an underlying thread… of servant leadership” that runs through all her activities. Whether in her role as dormitory assistant mediating communal kitchen squabbles, as a member of the Varsity Athlete Student Advisory Committee, or as an ambassador for Princeton during the team’s trip to Australia, Vanessa’s “humble, smiling nature” shines through everything she does.
The Class of 2017’s commitment to service reaches outside of the University’s walls as well. For Steffen Seitz, volunteering as a tutor in local prisons began as an opportunity “to get off campus and do something good.” Since then, it’s become his passion. Steffen now teaches a philosophy class once a week through the Prison Electives Program, and advocates for criminal justice reform as a member of Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR). He will continue this work next year as a Charles W. Puttkammer Fellow.
Sahand Keshavarz Rahbar spent time in Greece last summer volunteering at a refugee camp. According to Professor of Comparative Literature Karen Emmerich ’00, the trip’s leader, Sahand and a fellow student (Ariana Mirzada ’18) immediately recognized the need for math, science, and English classes for Afghan refugees. Sahand and Ariana taught classes in Persian and developed a curriculum that could be used after they left; Sahand also served as an interpreter for the Afghan community. Emmerich was impressed with Sahand’s “ability to juggle the roles of translator, advocate, aid worker, and friend to camp residents.”
What strikes me in all of these stories, and in many more that I was unable to share in this short column, is that service comes naturally to these students: it’s part of who they are. Their example gives us another reason to take pride as they graduate and a reason to look forward to their accomplishments as they step beyond FitzRandolph Gate.