PUPP students displayed their art at 185 Nassau Street in August.
Julie Bonette

One early August afternoon, Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP) art instructor Estefany Rodriguez looked around at her students and beamed. She cheered them on and snapped pictures as they proudly took turns telling their peers about their artwork on the walls of the Hagan Studio at 185 Nassau Street. 

The art show is something that PUPP — a college-preparation program for local high school students from underrepresented socioeconomic groups — couldn’t host for the last two years due to COVID-19.

“Having that isolation, I think, hindered them a little bit, because they couldn’t see the possibilities. Whereas in a classroom together, being able to build off each other, they create things that they never thought possible,” Rodriguez said. 

Taking up most of the studio’s eastern wall was a colorful example: a neatly arranged grid of 150 circles, some resembling planets, others flowers, and one an orange slice. Each of the 85 PUPP students contributed at least one circle to the piece, modeled after art they saw on a trip to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City — yet another thing that was unthinkable earlier in the pandemic.

In 2020, PUPP was entirely remote; staff provided students with supplies, including Chromebooks, so that learning could continue virtually. Last summer, thanks to slightly more relaxed restrictions, students were invited to campus for a day of community-building activities.

This year, summer activities like the Freshman Scholars Institute, Princeton Summer Theater, and PUPP returned to campus. 

PUPP director Jason Klugman said that while online emojis and chats helped support the students during a difficult time, “to actually get the applause and to hear that and feel that in a space [is] really, really wonderful. And I think pretty emotional.”

The PUPP students were happy to get out from behind their screens.

“The first day that we came on campus,” said Cristina Vanegas, a senior at Trenton Central High School, “it was like we were friends for years and years.”