Back in 1989, members of the class of 1955 dreamed big about what they could accomplish by creating an organization that would mobilize Princeton alumni and students to attack problems of public interest.
"Somebody suggested then that our goal should be expressed in the equation 55=5x5. That is, Princeton Project 55 would touch the lives of 5 million people within five years," said Charles Bray, board president and one of Project 55's founders.
The 80-member group had buttons made and people scoffed. They thought Project 55 overestimated its potential influence.
"As we look back on it now, there is widespread agreement that if we didn't make it in five years, we probably reached well beyond 5 million within the first decade," Bray said.
The seed for the project was planted during a mini-reunion, when attendees were moved by classmate Ralph Nader's challenge to help resolve problems of broad social concern. Project 55 launched its first initiative, the Public Interest Program, in 1990 with 14 summer interns and eight year-long fellows who worked in significant positions in public interest organizations.
To date, the non-profit organization, located at 32 Nassau St. in Princeton, has placed 720 Princeton students in positions in 20 cities throughout the country. Behind the matches are more than 200 alumni volunteers who serve as mentors for fellows and interns, organize educational seminars and recruit participating non-profit agencies, making sure they address an important societal change, create systemic solutions, promise significant impact and provide opportunities for substantial involvement.
As the organization heads into its second decade, it's a pivotal transition time, according to Project 55's Executive Director Kirsten Hund, a member of the class of 1984. "We are expanding our programs, seeking to stabilize our funding and working to include younger alumni in our leadership -- all with the goal of providing more opportunities for alumni and students to make a significant difference in communities in the United States and internationally," she said.
A LIFE CHANGING EXPERIENCE
For a great number of Princeton students, the experience has been life changing. Bill Kurtz is a bit unusual because he participated in Project 55 as an alumnus rather than as an undergraduate. But the program's effect on his life is fairly typical.
Kurtz graduated in 1991, and went to work on Wall Street. After nearly four years in finance, he left and, through a Project 55 fellowship, became an assistant principal at a Catholic grammar school in the South Bronx.
After the fellowship ended, Kurtz stayed on -- as do many of the students who participate in the Public Interest Program. He left in 1998 to become principal of the Link Community School in Newark, a private school that educates disadvantaged children almost free of charge. Kurtz said he never intended to become a banker and often told people so. When he decided to switch careers, he wanted a challenge but he also wanted to feel that he was contributing to change.
"The opportunities for me in terms of responsibility and being able to impact the organization were far greater than anything I would have had at Chase Manhattan for 10 years probably, or 15 or 20 years maybe," Kurtz said in a recent phone interview. "From a professional standpoint, that was important to me. But it also was important just to be able to make a difference with young people where it mattered, to be able to change some lives and provide education for some young people who never really had access to a good education."
Kurtz thought so highly of his fellowship experience that he joined Project 55's board of directors, which is bringing on progressively younger alumni. There are now seven members outside of the class of 1955 on the 21-member board.
"We think the basic mission of Princeton Project 55 deserves perpetuity," Bray said. "So we'd like to create the human and, if we can, financial conditions that assure that there is life for Princeton Project 55 after the class of 1955."
The organization is financially independent of the University and the class of 1955. It operates on a $500,000 annual budget funded by individual supporters and foundation grants. Project 55 has always been leanly staffed, leveraging its strong volunteer commitment. At the outset, current administrative officer Marge Berger was the organization's only employee; the staff has now grown to six. Board members are considering raising an endowment.
"We would never want to fund the project fully because we think there is real virtue in scrambling to raise a certain amount of money each year," Bray said. "It keeps the project in high muscle tone, and it assures what people do within the project is supportable and not just something they're having fun doing."
Besides cementing the survival of Princeton Project 55, the group is working on growing its programs. Public Interest Program Director Laura Hardman, a 1999 Princeton graduate, said the group would like to deepen the program's roots in more communities by creating more alumni committees and increasing placements.
The board also is considering a leadership development program to provide program alumni with opportunities to sharpen their skills, recharge their batteries and collaborate on ideas to improve the communities in which they live and work.
Over the years, Project 55 has added projects to the flagship program: the Tuberculosis Initiative, the Experiential Education Initiative and the Alumni Network, all under expansion as well.
The Experiential Education Initiative encourages learning through doing. Its efforts spurred and nurtured the development of the University's Community-Based Learning Initiative, which provides students the opportunity to research local issues for projects in courses or independent work. Both programs would like to see students, perhaps those right off the heels of a Project 55 internship, do more community-based research for their junior papers and senior theses, which could benefit the communities in which they've worked.
The Tuberculosis Initiative, which received a large grant from the Sequella Foundation, increases public awareness and education about tuberculosis, encourages U.S. leadership on global prevention and control, and fosters vaccine development. This year, Princeton's students are starting a "TB Advocacy Group," as a result of a presentation made by senior project manager Dipti Shah and project manager Matt Coldiron, a 1999 Princeton graduate.
The fourth program, the Alumni Network, supports efforts to establish alumni-based public interest organizations at other colleges and universities, and in other Princeton classes and regional associations. Chet Safian, another member of the class of 1955 and a co-founder of Project 55, said the organization was being called to do this long before it decided to make it part of its mission a year and a half ago.
Currently there are nine affiliates, including the Dartmouth Partners in Community Service and the Princeton University Class of 1969 Community Service Fund. Two more are in the process of establishing their programs and joining the network. The goal is to have a total of 50 affiliates to the Alumni Network by the Class of 1955's 50th reunion.
"We want to have a long-term impact and change the nature of what it means to be a college or university alum -- that alumni can do much more than just give money or attend sports events or go to reunions, as nice as that is, as important as that is," Safian said. "I think we've demonstrated that we've had meaningful impact on communities around the country, on alumni at Princeton, on the student body and on the institution itself."
Safian and Alumni Network program coordinator Stephanie Ramos, a 2000 Princeton graduate, tour the country making inspirational presentations and offering advice and support on how to get started. One of the biggest concerns they run up against is how an alumni organization of this kind will impact the institution's fund raising.
Safian said such involvement would only help: "Where there are alumni-based organizations, contributions have gone up." He cites his own class as an example. "Princeton's class of '55 just set a record for the most money ever contributed by a 45th reunion class and half of the people involved on the special gifts committee for the class of '55 are active with Project 55."
As the class of 1955 begins looking forward to its 50th reunion, Bray is optimistic about the future of Princeton Project 55.
"I think we can look back on our first decade with enormous satisfaction," he said. "In the second decade, things are beginning to take shape and we're beginning to recruit the energy of the younger alumni to the leadership of the project. I think the second and third decades can be extraordinary."
For more information on Princeton Project 55 , call (609) 921-8808.
Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-3601