Joe Benun ’15, center, trains with members of Team U before a half-marathon April 22 to benefit Shoe4Africa.
Joe Benun ’15, center, trains with members of Team U before a half-marathon April 22 to benefit Shoe4Africa.
Joe Benun ’15, center, trains with members of Team U before a half-marathon April 22 to benefit Shoe4Africa.

When Noah Brown ’13 and Joe Benun ’15 came to Princeton, each brought an idea. Brown’s began in elementary school with a rejected application to his local volunteer fire department; Benun’s was born with the realization that he could train anyone with a pair of sneakers to run a half-marathon.

Now, Brown is a volunteer firefighter with the Princeton Fire Department and an EMT with the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad, while Benun trained Team U, a group of more than 60 Princeton students who ran a half-marathon April 22 to raise money for the Shoe4Africa organization, which is building a children’s hospital in Kenya.

“If you sincerely understand that there are people who don’t have a chance to live, that will motivate people to do a lot of things,” said Benun. “That’s what’s motivating me to do Team U.”

According to Daniel Gastfriend ’13, co-chairman of the Pace Council for Civic Values (PCCV), that passion is a defining characteristic of a tight-knit community of Princeton students who are trying to make a difference by helping others. 

But many acknowledge that the Prince­ton community could be doing better. According to the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, which supports service efforts on and off campus, 84 percent of Prince­ton students feel that it is important to volunteer or work for the public interest. 

A 2011 survey by the Undergraduate Student Government, however, found that fewer than 50 percent of respondents had volunteered in the previous year. During the same period, the Pace Center counted 511 student volunteers with its Student Volunteers Council.

To create a stronger focus on community service, the USG’s Community Service Committee (CSC) has designated April a “Month of Service.” The CSC, in conjunction with campus partners, coordinated service events with the goal of logging 5,100 hours of service — the equivalent of one for each undergraduate — over the course of the month. 

Highlighting a month of service activities also was designed to raise the profile of the USG’s Campus Community Challenge, or “3C,” an initiative that encourages students to log their service hours. Plans include an interclub fundraiser in which eating clubs support classroom projects at local schools; a competition called “Clash of the Colleges: It’s Time to Serve,” in which students earn points for their residential colleges by volunteering; and the creation of a mural that will be donated to a local organization. 

Some of the activities were to be open to newly admitted students visiting campus during Princeton’s two Preview Weekends in April.

“We feel that if you start out your Princeton career with service, you will continue,” said Ashley Eberhart ’13, CSC co-chairwoman. “We are trying to make community service an active, conscious part of each student’s weekly schedule.” 

Sophomore Max Siegel said that students who want to be involved in service find opportunities to do so, “but it’s easy to opt out.” Added Brett Diehl ’15, CSC co-chairman: “There is a constant shortage of time due to academic and extracurricular commitments.” 

The Campus Community Challenge demonstrates the USG’s shift in emphasis from designing its own one-time events to working with campus partners. “We encourage [partner groups] to do one-time events with the hope that will convince [students] to do more sustainable community service,” said Gastfriend. 

Opportunities for service range from tutoring programs to events with athletes organized by the Princeton Varsity Club, sustainable-development projects with Engineers Without Borders, and emergency services. Many are offered under the umbrella of the Pace Center.

“We hope that the people doing these things are having a transformative experience,” said the Rev. Alison Boden, dean of the chapel and interim director of the Pace Center.

That was reflected in the experience of Zoe Li ’12, a former leader of Engineers Without Borders. “The work that you do really makes you think outside your comfort zone,” Li said. “It really takes you outside of the Princeton ­bubble.”