From the moment they open their acceptance packets, Princeton students know how important volunteer service and civic engagement are to the school. Emblazoned on every letter and pamphlet is the University’s unofficial motto, “In the nation’s service and the service of all nations,” and the phrase is heard in countless speeches during freshman orientation. But when classes start, the vision of Princeton students serving the wider world often fades quickly, as academic stress sets in and personal pursuits take precedence over volunteer work for many.A task force created by President Eisgruber ’83 to look at civic engagement on campus concluded that Princeton has fallen short of its commitment to service. A survey of senior classes from 2011 to 2014, cited in the report, found that an average of 44 percent of students had not participated in volunteer service while at Princeton; an average of 62 percent did not pursue civic-engagement opportunities such as political advocacy or social entrepreneurship.
Asked about the findings, some students said the issue is not that they feel volunteering is unimportant, but that it’s hard to devote time to it amid academic and extracurricular commitments. For example, Dean Rodan ’19 said he volunteered regularly during high school, but things changed when he came to Princeton.
“The culture is definitely more aimed toward educational pursuits,” Rodan said. “But we are all busy people, so it’s hard to blame the culture. More outreach to students — whether more posters, or more emails — might coax them out of the libraries and dorm rooms.”
For those who make service and community engagement a priority, some volunteer only during breaks and focus on academics when classes are in session. Community Action (CA) — a weeklong introduction to public service that is an alternative to Outdoor Action for incoming freshmen — and Breakout trips through the Pace Center for Civic Engagement expose students to the world beyond campus. These trips had a strong impact on Jarron McAllister ’16, who participated in Community Action and became a CA leader as a sophomore.
“On top of doing service and working with community partners, the mentorship aspect of CA was really what pushed me to apply [as a leader],” said McAllister, who also led a fall Breakout trip.
This academic year has seen stepped-up efforts to make service a part of everyday life at Princeton, and to connect with students who may not have had experiences like McAllister’s. The University’s strategic-planning document released last month (story, page 12) seeks to “emphasize and facilitate service in [Princeton’s] curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular programs.”
Student leaders at the Pace Center led a door-knocking campaign during the fall term to let freshmen know about service opportunities, and the center promoted a “Month of Service” in January. Among other projects, participants prepared food for distribution to area residents coping with hunger and decorated brown paper bags for lunches provided through the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. The men’s basketball team held a clinic for local children.
“The life of a Princeton student is hectic,” said Myesha Jemison ’18, who volunteers with Community House, which offers offers educational support to underrepresented youth in the Princeton area. “But my service at Community House is a priority, so I’ve made sure that it continues to be central to my Princeton experience.”