President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Alumni in the Nation's Service
March 9, 2005
Last November, a task force comprised of undergraduates completed a yearlong analysis of the ways in which Princeton equips and encourages its students to play an active role in their communities. The task force compiled an impressive directory of programs, centers, offices, and organizations that currently foster responsible citizenship on our campus, but it also outlined steps that we can take to enhance and extend this work. Proposals ranged from the expansion of issue-based seminars designed to address systemic social problems to the development of long-term relationships between our residential colleges and local community organizations. In sum, the task force urged us to “redouble our collective commitment to civic values.”
It came as no surprise to me that one of the sponsors of this task force was Princeton Project 55, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last October. PP55 has played a critical role in giving substance to our institutional commitment to serve our nation and all nations, and it has shown what alumni can do, at every stage in their lives, to strengthen the civic fabric of society. As my predecessor Harold Shapiro *64 put it, “Project 55 is one of the great Princeton success stories,” not only because of the lives it has directly touched but also because of the example of collective service it has set for other alumni, both here and elsewhere.
PP55 traces its beginnings to a regional reunion of the Class of 1955 in Washington, D.C., in 1989 when Ralph Nader ’55 urged his classmates to contribute their talents and energies to the public good at a point in their lives when they could look beyond the immediate needs of their families and the demands of professional advancement. Nader’s words were greeted with enthusiasm, and in a matter of months PP55 was born.
Its first and best-known initiative was the Public Interest Program (PIP), spearheaded by John Fish ’55. Since its inauguration in 1990, PIP has given more than 1,100 Princeton students and recent graduates an opportunity to spend a summer or a year with a wide array of nonprofit organizations in a paid and meaningful capacity. More than 350 organizations, from the Georgia Council on Child Abuse to the Trust for Public Land, have tapped the skills of PIP fellows and interns, who have, in turn, applied themselves to meeting some of society’s greatest challenges. Princeton could not ask for finer ambassadors than these young men and women.
Over the years, PP55 has launched additional ventures and supported others, including our Community-Based Learning Initiative, which promotes collaborative research projects between our students and local community organizations. PP55’s Civic Values Initiative has underscored the importance of strengthening the civic engagement of our students; its Tuberculosis Initiative has raised the public’s awareness of the global prevalence of TB and enlisted Princeton students and recent graduates in the struggle to control this epidemic; and its Social Venture Fund is providing seed money and other forms of support to Princetonians who found non-profit organizations that confront systemic social problems.
PP55 has reached beyond the confines of the Class of 1955 to ensure that the spirit of its founders is shared with and embraced by other alumni on an intergenerational basis. Today, almost half its board is drawn from classes that graduated between 1966 and 1999. PP55 is also a founding member of the Alumni Network, a group of alumni-based organizations committed to addressing issues of societal concern on a systematic and nonpartisan basis. With 24 affiliates, stretching from Yale to Stanford, the network has a national reach, but Princeton’s colors are strongly represented, not only by PP55 but by eight other initiatives. These include projects sponsored by three regional alumni associations (the Princeton Club of Southern California, the Princeton Club of Chicago, and the Princeton Association of New England); and two classes (1956 and 1969).
PP55 has truly been a source of inspiration and guidance for young alumni who want to make a positive difference at a local, national, or global level. The now traditional roar that accompanies the Class of 1955 as it marches past the youngest classes on Elm Drive in the P-rade will be especially loud this year as it celebrates its 50th reunion.
Volunteerism has long been a defining characteristic of American society—in the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville was forcibly struck by the constructive power of “public associations” in this country—and I am delighted that so many Princetonians have joined together, not only to celebrate their common experience and support their alma mater, but also to improve our world. From promoting adult literacy in New York (part of the Princeton Club of New York’s Princeton Service Project) to bringing wheelchairs to Guatemala and Vietnam (a 25th reunion project of the Class of 1977), Princetonians are “giving back.”
The Alumni Council’s Committee on Community Service has listed many of these initiatives on its Web site and is ready, willing, and able to assist alumni in developing others. The committee, which is chaired by Tannwen Mount ’98, envisions “a society wherein community service is recognized as invaluable to the general welfare and a meaningful educational experience for all students and alumni.” This is a goal that all Princetonians can further, for as PP55 demonstrates, there is very little that a dedicated and creative band of alumni cannot accomplish.