The Pyne Prize winners’ remarks, and quotes from panelists

Pyne Prize winner Alex Barnard ’09:

Thank you so much to Princeton for this huge honor. I’m humbled and also a little bit shocked and awed to be receiving this award.  

I am incredibly lucky to be joined today by a who’s-who of the people who have made success at Princeton possible for me. And it is Academy Award weekend, so bear with me. Thank you to the band members who are here with me: I almost got you killed at the Citadel this fall, and you’re still here. Thank you to my loyal friends Jordan, Emily, and Devon, and thank you especially Jackie, for trying to convince me that I actually deserve this. I’m also lucky enough to have some of the best faculty at Princeton here with me today; thank you professors Duneier and Baldassarri. And thank you especially to Professor Kelly – without you, I might be a Woodrow Wilson School major. Most importantly of all, though, I’m lucky enough that my Mom, Diane, and my 88-year-old grandpa, John, came from the other side of the country to join me today. Dad, I wish you could be here, but if I didn’t have a thesis to write, I’d want to be in Costa Rica, too. And as an aside, I’d just like to say that there’s no one on this campus I would rather share this award with than Andy Chen – who says SOC isn’t a real major?

My initial thought as I prepared my remarks for today was that I should spend my five minutes up here trying to convince you all that I’m not actually crazy. But as I thought about the likely audience, I realized that by merit of hair alone that’s going to be a tall order. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts about how I am crazy – about Princeton.

I remember when I first cut and dyed my hair, I went in to a seminar. The professor walked in, and he surveyed his students. His gaze settled on me, and after a few seconds of staring quizzically, he asked, “Are you a student here?” This might surprise you, but I get that a lot. It’s always been a struggle to convince people in town, and the dry cleaners, at a punk rock show, or my research subjects in New York, that I actually go to Princeton University. You see, it seems people have this image of Princeton as an elitist country club, an institution populated by cookie-cutter people, an institution without a place for people like me.  

What I’ve found, though, is that this is an institution willing to take a risk and give someone like me a chance. It started before I got here, when President Tilghman said she wanted students with green hair here – that was big. Then, my sophomore year, I went to Dean Dunne and told him I wanted to smear myself in fake blood and wrap myself in cellophane to protest for better vegan options in the dining hall. To my surprise, he said, “OK, how can I help?” My junior year I wandered into Professor Baldassarri’s office – without having ever met her – and told her that, while I could study immigration or globalization, what I really wanted to do for my independent work was study people in New York City who eat trash as a form of protest. She told me to follow my passion, and offered to advise me. And this year, far from thinking I was delusional – as a few other fellowship committees may have – the Sachs Committee honored me with the fantastic opportunity to study at Oxford next year.

I’m grateful to all these people for realizing that “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of all nations” doesn’t have to mean donning a suit and tie and heading to the State Department, though there’s nothing wrong with that. They saw that my interest in causes that I’ve been exploring through my independent work – animal rights, anti-consumerism, and freeganism – doesn’t stem from some strange pathology (or at least, not entirely from some strange pathology). I’m interested in them because I think these causes – however unconventional they might seem – tap into some of our best, traditional values of mutual aid, community, and stewardship. And I’m glad there were people here who had the vision to give me a chance to show that.

More than just pushing me intellectually, though, independent work has taught me that nothing at Princeton – even writing a thesis – is all that independent. Princeton has supported me all along, and I could never do this without professors and friends who believe in me. Thanks in large part to the band, I’ve learned that you don’t have to look or act like a “typical” Princeton student to love or to belong at Princeton. The community that binds us together as Princetonians is a lot more welcoming and diverse than many give it credit for. And it’s a community that I’m really going to miss when I leave here. I remember being in awe during Reunions my freshman year, seeing someone in a wheelchair going through the P-rade holding a sign saying “Kiss me while I’m still conscious,” or realizing that alumni from the classes of ’56 and 2006 could relate as if they lived down the hall from each other, based on shared experiences that transcend time. What I love about Princeton is the sense that I’m part of something bigger than myself, bigger than one class or bigger than one eating club.  

I could say more, but if you want perhaps the best example of how much I love Princeton, come to any given Princeton sporting event – say, the Dartmouth game tonight. I’ll be the one wearing orange plaid, dancing like an idiot, cheering for the Tigers no matter how far we’re down and singing along to “Old Nassau” way too loudly. While from the shoulders up, I might not fit the bill, my heart is all Princeton. It’s been an amazing three and a half years. Thank you all for this huge honor.

Pyne Prize winner Andy Chen’09:

In our current economic climate, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by fear. Particularly for those of us on the brink of graduation, the job market is not looking particularly friendly. And for those of us applying to graduate school, competition has surged because everybody seems to be applying to grad school. This makes us understandably anxious and fearful about the future.

But when I think about it, my entire Princeton experience has really been characterized by fear, and the continual challenge to overcome it. In Professor Patricia Fernandez-Kelly’s freshman seminar, I felt constantly overwhelmed and intimidated because I lacked the cultural capital and confidence to participate in conversations with my peers. The professor encouraged me, however, to judge my work not by what others thought of it, but by the quality of my own experience.

She would take us on journeys into the New Jersey state prison, the state’s only maximum security facility, where we would partner with the inmates to discuss the relationship between poverty and incarceration. There, I met with prisoners who had committed triple homicides and other unthinkable atrocities. Getting to know these men made me realize how human they were, and how much the prison system infantilized them to make them seem less hostile. I realized that while there is no way we can exculpate them from the crimes they have committed, they are dearly sorry, and they want us to understand that. Throughout my Princeton experience, sociology has taught me the value of compassion, and that the gift of the liberal arts is the capacity for empathy.

Graphic design has recently served as a medium for me to articulate my ideas. I started the Student Design Agency with a couple of friends as a fun extracurricular activity. Little did I know that it would take over my life, and that I would be working 35 to 40 hours a week. It’s not a business model that would ever work in the real world, where profit is kind of a secondary motive. We earn maybe a dollar or two an hour at the end of the day. But what firms my dedication to our work is the idea that design can collectivize like-minded people around a worthy causes. And I am optimistic that the University will soon see it fit to add design to its curricular offerings.

What made me realize the strength of graphic design was a campaign that Dean Tom Dunne asked me to help with in reaction to JuicyCampus. JuicyCampus was a Web site created for students to post anonymous gossip about their peers. Students would post statements like, “That girl, you know, the one who got raped? You know she deserved it.” or “That guy, you know he must be gay, right?” We started the Own What You Think campaign as a way to attack fear by speaking to our values as a community. Students submitted positive statements about their peers, which I collaged onto posters. We also had an outdoor exhibition in front of Frist Campus Center, where the statements would be projected one after another after another – a wall of solidarity against the hate.

What I’ve discovered through these experiences is that it’s not really true that all we have to fear is fear itself. I don’t think FDR got it quite right. What we have to fear, I think, is our incapacity to overcome fear because we are immobilized by it, or because we think ourselves too small to make a difference. And as I think about the looming, uncertain future, I am really quite afraid.  

But what I’ve gained at Princeton is the courage to face those fears. I’ve also learned that joining the Peace Corps doesn't make you a saint. And neither do fancy accolades or recognition. All I can hope is that this award represents a commitment to be responsible to the ideals that this University has impressed upon me. And I challenge you all to face whatever it is you fear with dignity and compassion. Thank you.

Quotes from Alumni Day panels

“[Missionary activity] is very similar to ‘Princeton in the service of all nations’ – but what does this mean? Hopefully, it means that we, Americans, are learning things from the rest of the world as we go about this.”

-- Robert J. Wuthnow, Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences, on “Globalization and the Expanding Reach of American Christianity”

“Though we all like to cling to the belief that politics stops at the water’s edge … the fact is, this is rarely the case. Politics and national security have always been closely related, at least since the end of World War II.”

-- Julian E. Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs, in a talk titled “Presidential Leadership and the Politics of National Security: A Look Back on the Cuban Missile Crisis”

"This is a vast, highly decentralized, complicated, conservative institution we're talking about when we talk about public education in the United States, and the federal government has frankly little to say about most of what happens in public education. It's in the hands of the states."

-- Gordon A. MacInnes *65, lecturer in the Woodrow Wilson School, at a panel titled "Education Policy in an Era of Fiscal Uncertainty"

"Malcolm Gladwell writes about how there are two positions in this country where it is almost impossible to do the assessment of their ability until you give them a few years. Number one is college quarterbacks who are thinking of being drafted into the NFL. The other? Classroom teachers. You just don't know until you've seen them interacting for a couple of years."

-- Raj Vinnakota '93, managing director of the Seed Foundation, at the education policy panel