The Class of 2012, notable for diversity and gender balance, takes its place

Freshmen march in the annual Pre-rade to the sounds of the University Band.
Freshmen march in the annual Pre-rade to the sounds of the University Band.
Ricardo Barros

The annual interfaith service that marks the start of each academic year usually includes a stirring welcome for the new freshmen and an exhortation to seize the opportunities Princeton offers. This year, President Tilghman added another call to action.

“I would like to issue a challenge to the Class of 2012 to take as its first project the goal of registering every single eligible voter and ensuring that he or she votes on Election Day,” she told more than 1,200 new undergraduates who filled the University Chapel Sept. 7.  

Tilghman went on to emphasize the importance of a liberal-arts undergraduate experience that is not tailored to any single profession. She commented on the diversity of the new class, which consists of students from 47 states and 45 foreign countries. The University enrolled the most diverse class in its history for the third straight year:   Of the new freshmen, 11 percent are international students, 56 percent are on financial aid, and 38 percent are U.S. minority students. And for the first time, the gender balance is virtually even — 623 men and 620 women.

Tilghman’s unexpected challenge seemed to energize the freshmen, with some registering to vote only a few days after her opening address. Laura Pederson ’12 said in an e-mail that Tilghman’s challenge came as a surprise, “but when I consider the Princeton motto and the potential impact of such an intelligent
community, the sense of responsibility and pride that I am certain President Tilghman had in mind began to develop.” Now, Pederson said, she has “more Obama stickers than I can count.”  

For the first time the freshmen processed into the chapel behind the banners of their residential colleges — part of an effort by the University to build college identity. After the ceremony, they marched in the annual Pre-rade through FitzRandolph Gate, to the cheers of upperclassmen and faculty members. “The Pre-rade made me feel as though I really was a part of something bigger and better than just myself alone,” said Pederson. “It impressed upon you the nature and scope of the University.”

At the freshman inaugural lecture on Sunday evening, philosophy professor Gideon Rosen spoke of moral responsibility and free will, urging the new students to make the most of their next four years by committing to serious self-reflection.

“This is what college is for,” Rosen told students assembled in McCarter Theatre. “To step back from immediate practical concerns and to scrutinize the assumptions that come with you.”

Many freshmen seemed to get an early start on doing that, scurrying from departmental open houses to panel discussions, auditions, arch sings, library tours, and scavenger hunts as they tasted both the familiar and the new.

Christina Chang ’12 spent her first few days participating in Community Action, a pre-orientation program in which 145 freshmen performed community service in Princeton, Trenton, and Philadelphia. Chang was in a group working on environmental awareness, which concluded the week with a presentation on recycling to elementary students. (Other Community Action groups spent time helping homeless people, working with teens in crisis, helping to build affordable homes, and volunteering in programs in the arts.)

For Chang, Community Action was just the start of her Princeton activities. She squeezed in a lecture on “Reflections on Service” and landed an offer of a research position in neuroscience. “I have auditioned for two choral groups already, and I’ve never sung in a choir before. I’m surprised even at myself,” she said.

Pederson was one of the 693 freshmen to participate in the better-known Outdoor Action — a record 55 percent of the class. Director Rick Curtis ’79 attributed the high participation rate to the financial-aid program started last year, which provided a free trip to any student on financial aid. This year also was the first time that pre-orientation for international students took place before OA and CA, allowing more of them to participate.

“Most of the people on campus I’ve spoken with usually slip the phrase ‘I like to keep myself busy’ somewhere into our conversation,” said Pederson, who had attended a civic-engagement fair, joined the College Democrats, and was planning to audition for the Quip-fire improvisation group.

Most of the freshmen enjoyed their first whirlwind week at college, though some were looking forward to getting a real taste of the academics at Princeton.

“Freshman week has been a good example of the overwhelming amount of opportunities available,” said Caroline Pinke ’12. “Though by the end of this week, I was really ready for classes to start and to have an organized schedule.”