Cassandra James ’23, who traveled around the southwest this summer conducting research for her thesis, a novel about a Hispanic girl growing up in the 18th century.
PAW interviewed 11 undergrads whose summer projects made the world a better place

After finishing the academic year and leaving campus in May, some Princeton students surely returned home to spend a leisurely summer with family and friends. 

This is not that story. 

Below are condensed and edited excerpts from PAW’s interviews with 11 undergraduates who received funding to tackle summer projects and make a difference in communities around the world.

Gustavo Andre Blanco-Quiroga ’25 speaks before a group of students.
Courtesy of Gustavo Andre Blanco-Quiroga ’25
Gustavo Andre Blanco-Quiroga ’25

Majoring in: Undeclared

Project location: Bolivia

Funding source: Projects for Peace

I spent my summer  organizing a series of 10 gender-equality workshops near my home in Bolivia, where unfortunately, there is a lot of violence against women. I sought a solution that would attack the root of the problem and decided on the concept of new masculinities, which empowers men to stop abiding by common gender stereotypes, like that only women should cook. I invited expert speakers to come and share their knowledge with a select group of male Indigenous leaders, with the hopes that these leaders will bring the lessons back to their communities. 

The other component of the workshops was entrepreneurial: Participants were encouraged to innovate and develop business ideas focused on gender equality. The three best pitches received funding, but I think all the participants have reflected on what it really means to promote gender equality in a challenging environment like Bolivia.

Chioma Ugwonali ’24 stands in front of several tents.
Chioma Ugwonali ’24
Jourdan Boyle, Johnny Lewis, and Chongyang Zhang
Chioma Ugwonali ’24

Majoring in: Ecology and evolutionary biology

Project location: Fort Worth, Texas

Funding source: Projects for Peace

I spent my summer  organizing community events in the South Fort Worth area, including a community festival that promoted well-being, particularly for those who have been systematically oppressed. One of the purposes of the festival was to celebrate life and give people a chance to relax and enjoy community. Globally, we’ve all been through so much these past few years, and a lot of folks have been left without a home, without a car, with less food on their plates.

I was also really trying to introduce this concept of environmental justice, which to me is based on the idea that the health and well-being of humans, nonhuman species, and environments are all intertwined. And that extends beyond just clean air, water, healthy soils, and access to nutritious food, but also to social and cultural rights and protections as well. That’s also part of well-being, and I think I was able to communicate that principle through the events, which also included a local urban agricultural tour and a workshop for youth.

Diego Solorio ’24 and his students wear goggles and blue lab covers as they pour liquids between beakers outdoors.
Diego Solorio ’24 and his students
Diego Solorio ’24

Majoring in: Astrophysical sciences

Project location: Santa Ana, California

Funding source: Bogle Fellowship from the Pace Center for Civic Engagement and additional support from the Nicholas Academic Centers (NAC)

I spent my summer  teaching STEM to 27 high school students over three weeks in my hometown. I got to design the curriculum myself with support from NAC, which is a college-access program that I participated in when I was a teenager. I’m so happy they agreed to work with me on this.

I’m Mexican and Chinese, and growing up, I didn’t see anyone who looks like me in the science communication field. So, this summer, I wanted to help increase access to STEM, especially for the Latine community. Each day, I taught half a day of science, and then the second half of the day would focus more on systemic injustices within STEM, what causes them, and how to address them. And in fact, 80 percent of the students who attended had an increased interest in majoring in the sciences, and 96 percent of the students became aware and were glad to learn of the social inequities present within the sciences. Moreover, some of the students have directly stated that awareness about injustices within the sciences motivated them to pursue the field even more.

Kareena Bhakta ’24

Majoring in: School of Public and International Affairs

Project location: Essex County, New Jersey 

Funding source: Bogle Fellowship from the Pace Center for Civic Engagement

I spent my summer  interning for eight weeks at the Essex County Public Defender’s Office. Our team would get referrals from attorneys asking us to help connect their clients to certain resources, like identifying available housing or treatment programs, applying for Social Security, and getting an ID so they can get a job. Beyond legal help, this was getting at social services and ensuring that, for example, if a client is on probation, they have the resources they need to stay on path. We really wanted to find out about their lives so that we could not just provide them with the resources they asked for, but then also show them new resources that they might not have even known existed or could access.

You’ve got to go along on this journey with the clients, and sometimes you really got to see a transition. In the beginning, they may be a little bit wary, rightfully so in my opinion, since they’ve been a part of this system that isn’t really looking out for them. And then, once you start to show them results, all of a sudden they really open up and they’re very grateful. I loved to see that.

Olivia Cao ’24

Majoring in: Mathematics

Project location: Philadelphia

Funding source: Bogle Fellowship from the Pace Center for Civic Engagement

I spent my summer  interning at, a startup nonprofit that allows people experiencing homelessness to store their IDs online. I’m a front-end engineer, so I was working on how the site looks and bug fixes, but as I was interning, I realized that we don’t interact a lot with the community since we’re technology based. I decided to use the funding I received from Princeton to organize a dinner for people experiencing homelessness, with the goal of learning more about the guests’ experiences with IDs. We had pizza, bingo, karaoke, and giveaways and prizes like water bottles, phone chargers, and even Philadelphia Eagles jerseys.

I’m really interested in working in the nonprofit sector or in service in some way. I think during the pandemic, we saw a lot of inequity surfacing, and it was at that time that I realized I’ve been kind of sheltered and living in a bubble almost, not realizing all these problems were happening. I realized that a lot can be done when you set your mind to things and work hard, so I’m always trying to find more opportunities to get involved with service. 

Three students stand on a bridge with the Tower of London and Tower Bridge in the background.
Courtesy of April Yoo ’24
April Yoo ’24

Majoring in: Medical anthropology

Project location: Sunderland, England

Funding source: Center for Health and Wellbeing

I spent my summer … working with a veterans-focused organization called Veterans in Crisis that looks to address social isolation. They planned a full calendar of activities for the veterans, and every day of my eight-week internship was different. On Thursday mornings, I would go dog walking down to the beach with the veterans and their dogs. Every Wednesday morning, there was a painting craft, like ceramics. I also went canoeing, boxing, and biking. 

I think it was really good for the veterans, because their physical well-being is being taken care of, but at the same time the activities were very connected to their mental well-being. A lot of what I did was just having conversations, but I think in a way that’s therapeutic for the veterans, just to talk to someone and have someone listen. I learned a lot about their stories and what they went through, like trauma from war. It was eye-opening. 

Will Koloc ’25

Majoring in: English

Project location: Sunderland, England

Funding source: Center for Health and Wellbeing

I spent my summer … working with organizations that provide a wide array of health and well-being resources and services to those living in suburban neighborhoods. Over eight weeks, I worked on a variety of projects related to “social prescribing,” an up-and-coming practice in England that offers nonmedical treatment to promote holistic good health and well-being. 

My work this summer wasn’t a standard 9-to-5; it was very in the moment. I got involved with whatever the community was doing at the time. One of the projects I worked on brought together an elderly population and a school-aged population to garden, the theory being that spending time together might foster a healthy respect between these two groups and possibly minimize vandalism and petty crime. Setting up a gardening activity doesn’t sound like the most impactful thing in the world, but I think putting effort toward developing a neighborhood identity and fostering this pride to live where you’re from is a really unique way of looking at bettering a community.

Naomi Frim-Abrams ’23

Majoring in: Sociology

Project location: Sunderland, England

Funding source: Center for Health and Wellbeing

I spent my summer … working at the intersection of the arts and health and well-being. For eight weeks, I was working with nonprofits and thinking about how the arts can contribute to a holistic concept of both personal, individualized health and also community health. How are we utilizing community resources and making sure they’re strong as they can be, and on the other side of that, how are the arts helping to create stronger social communities? I really care a lot about health, and I also feel very passionate about arts education, so it was really exciting to me to be able to combine the two.

With an organization called Sea Change Lab, I helped organize workshops featuring artists who would meet with local youth to explore topics around coastal identity using a variety of artistic mediums like photography, video, stop motion animation, and sun printing. Every day was something new and something different, and I got to do a lot of arts, which I really love. It was a really fun summer.

René Cruz ’23

Majoring in: History

Project location: Long Island, New York

Funding source: Stone/Davis Prize from the Shelby Cullom Davis Center

I spent my summer  researching the Salvadoran community on Long Island for my senior thesis. I feel like in history, we learn a lot about the Roman emperors, the presidents, these big actors, but I wanted to learn more about the common people throughout history: the immigrants, the workers, the average. There is a story there that hasn’t been told.

My parents immigrated to the United States from El Salvador, and even though I grew up in Tennessee, we have lots of family on Long Island, where there’s a large Salvadoran community, so I have traveled there often. During my two-week visit this summer, I conducted interviews with Salvadorans in the community and visited the archives of libraries and a Spanish-language newspaper. My goal is to investigate how Salvadorans have shaped the landscape of American cities and communities, and to provide one of the first academic investigations of the largest minority group on Long Island. 

This is a selfie photo of Claire Schmeller ’23
Courtesy of Claire Schmeller ’23
Claire Schmeller ’23

Majoring in: History

Project location: Southern Mississippi 

Funding sources: Stone/Davis Prize from the Shelby Cullom Davis Center, and additional support from the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Center for Culture, Society, and Religion

I spent my summer  researching World War II-era German prisoner of war camps in Mississippi for my senior thesis. I didn’t know there were German POW camps in Mississippi until I heard about them from my adviser, and I was intrigued to learn more. It opened up a whole treasure trove of dynamics and questions about the prisoners’ quality of life. I see value specifically in researching the POW experience, because in a way, through that lens, you can really gain some perspective about what was valued at the time. For example, I was very fascinated to learn they had orchestras in the POW camps. I’m a musician myself, so that particular use of resources caught my eye.

During my two-week visit, I talked to very welcoming archivists and librarians, and they’re all very excited about my research because there’s not very much about these camps out there. And I think because no one has come to look at these documents, everyone is brimming with excitement about what they could possibly contain. I also got to visit museums and the site of one of the former POW camps, Camp Shelby, which is now a joint forces training camp. 

Courtesy of Cassandra James ’23
Cassandra James ’23

Majoring in: English 

Project location: Southwestern United States

Funding sources: Alex Adam ’07 Award from the Lewis Center for the Arts and the A. Scott Berg Fellowship from the English department

I spent my summer  traveling the Southwest and learning about its history. Over two and a half weeks, I visited Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas to conduct research for my senior thesis, which will be a novel fused with magical realism that centers around a Hispanic girl growing up in New Spain during the 18th century. During my trip, I got to see a bunch of historical sites, go to museums, try incredible Tejano food, and so much more. 

I got an incredible sense of Hispanic history and culture and the role that women played, and it was really inspiring. I think honoring the stories of these women is my way of giving back to the incredibly strong, intelligent, passionate women that poured into me. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.