When classes begin at Princeton University on Wednesday, September 10, a sizable chunk of the freshman class will have already learned about life beyond the leafy campus and surrounding idyllic town. They are the 174 participants in the school’s Community Action program, a 10-year-old initiative that takes students into Trenton, New York, Philadelphia, parts of Princeton, and other urban areas to help with projects ranging from ladling out soup to building houses.
Participation in the five-day service program, held the week before the freshmen orientation, is voluntary. The students stay in “sleep sites” near their work sites, in church basements and other makeshift facilities, using public transportation if travel is involved.
“This gives students their first experience working with others on service programs,” said Charlotte Collins, assistant director of Community Action. “They tackle issues like human services, health, hunger, and homelessness. They get the opportunity to learn about each other, their communities, and what kind of service they can do.”
Many of the students end up working on these service projects not only during the designated week, but throughout the year via the University’s Pace Center. Programs to which freshmen are assigned this week include cleaning and painting the Horse Trade Theatre Group in New York City, helping the Rescue Mission of Trenton record the stories of adult homeless shelter residents, assisting a neighborhood cleanup through the Trenton group El Centro, and collaborating with Anchor House in Trenton to help at-risk youth.
Students assigned to Camden are gardening, working at a soup kitchen, and helping out in a day shelter. At Trenton’s Isles organization run by University alumnus Marty Johnson, they are helping with urban gardening, cleaning up local parks and riverbeds, and educating families about affordable, green housing opportunities. On Labor Day, they helped the Sierra Club clean up Mercer County Park. Those in Philadelphia will work at the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen, interacting with the homeless who count on the center for food, toiletries, school supplies, and other basic services.
Not all of the sites are in gritty urban areas. Closer to campus, participants are working with the Princeton Senior Resource Center, the YWCA Princeton, the Historical Society of Princeton, the University’s Community House, Honey Brook Organic Farm in Pennington, and Lawrence Nature Center in Lawrenceville.
“The informal motto of the University is ‘in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.’ The concept of community and helping others is woven into the culture here,” said Thomas Roberts, a junior who co-chairs the University’s Community Action coordinating board. “The program helps give incoming freshmen that first page of getting involved.”
Most Community Action programs are run out of the University’s Pace Center. “At Pace, we want to help the students ask critical questions connected to academics and their future careers,” said Ms. Collins. “We want them to think about service, social justice, and how to have a voice in issues they are passionate about. How does that feed into their overall experience at Princeton? We try to highlight the different pathways they can take to have a more well-rounded experience.”
Continuing collaborations are encouraged by the Pace Center, which also oversees student volunteer programs and weekly projects throughout the year. “With some of our community partners, it’s not just a ‘one and done’ situation,” said Ms. Collins. “One of our Princeton area student groups will be spending the day with our own Community House, and they can continue to do that throughout the year.”
The Community Action program started a decade ago as Urban Action. It has continued to attract freshmen committed to community service. “They’ll have ample time to explore and learn about the University,” said Mr. Roberts. “But we think it’s critical that they learn about what’s beyond the campus. We want to create a well-rounded and thorough experience that helps them understand the world beyond their everyday experience.”