José Gonzales taught his students in no ordinary classroom — the children would kneel at the foot of a waterfall, attention fixed on a hemlock clinging to the cliff face. Their teacher was a masterful orator. A former fighter pilot and theater major before his career in experiential education, Gonzalez would lead the youth through confidence- and leadership-building activities in the outdoors. “See how the hemlock’s fight to grow has made it beautiful and strong,” he would say. “It won’t blow over in the first storm.”
During 30 years with the Princeton-Blairstown Center, until he retired in 2001, Gonzalez brought hundreds of campers from the inner cities of the tristate area to peer at the tree. The children would unpack the analogy, discussing how struggles within their environments have shaped them.
The Blairstown Center is a 263-acre wooded campground 65 miles from Nassau Hall that offers hiking trails, high and low ropes courses, a river, and Bass Lake. Against this backdrop, the camp runs weeklong social and emotional learning programs for at-risk urban youth.
But Blairstown recently has been weathering its own challenges. The departure of two executive directors in three years and the dwindling involvement of Princeton students in recent decades have shaped ongoing discussions between the University administration and the center’s leadership. A question mark hovers over the relationship between the two institutions.
Blairstown operates as an independent support organization of Princeton, with a private $20 million endowment managed by the Princeton University Investment Co. The University contributes 2 percent of the center’s $1.8 million annual budget and offers free use of University office space, information technology, and legal counsel. Blairstown staff members are entitled to University-employee benefits.
In return, the University expects that, like all its support organizations, Blairstown will contribute to Princeton’s core mission. “For many reasons, it remains important that Blairstown benefits Princeton students,” said Chris Shephard ’98, co-president of the Blairstown board of trustees.
The center’s leadership is developing a new strategic plan for the organization. Janet Dickerson, who retired in June 2010 as the University’s vice president for campus life, assumed co-presidency of the board with Shephard in December. She said that the planning initiative will look at how best to support both the University and the students “from urban areas or families who are underserved, for whom outdoor activities can enhance their experience in post-secondary education.”
Princeton, Dickerson said, long has recognized that Blairstown “was directly engaged in helping the University transition to a modern university, one that is integrated and that has made civic engagement one of its high-priority goals.”
Blairstown’s role as a center for civic engagement for Princeton students stems from its founding. The center emerged from the Princeton Summer Camp, created in 1908 for underserved boys by a student evangelical group, the Philadelphia Society of Princeton.
In 1930, Princeton students purchased the land of the current Blairstown site, located in Hardwick Township. The camp remained almost entirely student-run until the 1970s, and now operates as an independent 501(c)(3) organization.
Though programs offered by the center have changed over the decades, the “power of service, adventure, and reflection in the outdoors is an old idea,” Shephard said. In 1973, then-executive director John Danielson ’58 transformed the camp into a year-round facility and introduced its experiential education model. Danielson founded the freshman orientation program, Outdoor Action, at Blairstown in 1974.
In 2006, Blairstown launched programs in urban schools to help students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds enroll at institutions of higher education. Four facilitators run weekly sessions throughout the school year for a total of 350 students at three schools in Trenton and one in East Harlem. The programs include visits to both Blairstown and the Princeton campus.
To involve more Princeton students, the current executive director, Wardell Robinson-Moore, plans to hire a full-time staff member dedicated to student outreach. She hopes to see more student groups use the facilities and to attract students interested in urban youth and education issues. “In the last three years, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of students coming up,” Robinson-Moore said.
While groups such as Outdoor Action, the Student Volunteers Council, and the Woodrow Wilson School graduate program have used the camp for years, new groups arrived last year, including the varsity lacrosse team and the Undergraduate Student Government. USG president Michael Yaroshefsky ’12 said the retreat was “remarkably successful,” praising both the staff and the beauty of the camp.
Shephard also has invited students to help lead Blairstown. In December, the trustees elected two M.P.A. students from the Woodrow Wilson School, Larry Handerhan and Elina Sarkisova, to join their ranks. Seven alumni sit on the 21-member board, and another alumnus is a staff member.
Cynthia Cherrey, Princeton’s vice president for campus life, said it would be premature to discuss the outcome of the talks with the center. Questions remain about how the institutional arrangement affects Blairstown’s ability to “give young people opportunities to challenge and define themselves,” she said, and how Princeton students may contribute to that mission.
Dickerson said that results of the discussions should grow clearer in coming months.