Princeton 101: Freshman Scholars Institute immerses students in campus life

Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI) running on Institute for Advanced Studies bridge

This summer, 77 Princeton students are participating in the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI), a seven-week academic program for select incoming freshmen that immerses them in campus life through academic, co-curricular and extracurricular programming. Above: Hector Solis and Anthony Sermarini enjoy an early morning run on the swinging bridge connecting the Institute for Advanced Study woods and the D&R Canal towpath near campus.

Photo by Ryan O'Mara, FSI resident graduate student, Office of Population Research

On a recent Thursday morning, 11 students in the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI), a seven-week academic program for select incoming Princeton freshmen, were pondering the concept of pluralistic ignorance.

"Pluralist ignorance is the idea that even though we might choose to behave similarly to others in a group, deep down we feel differently than the others in the group," said Erin Vearncombe, a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program who led the seminar, part of FSI's "Ways of Knowing" humanities course. "Have you ever been in this situation?"

"I wrestled in high school and when we went to a team meet, everyone would have that look, like 'I'm the tough dude,'" said one student. "We would shake hands with the other team and the purpose of that handshake was to crush the others' hands; but internally I felt scared because I was thinking 'this dude is bigger than me.'"

During the discussion, the students also practiced "conversation moves," such as: create space for someone who has not yet spoken to contribute to the conversation; make a comment that underscores the link between two people's contributions; and use body language to show interest in what different speakers are saying.

The students are among the 77 FSI participants this summer. FSI students are selected based on a variety of criteria, including their achievements as first-generation college students, their demonstrated leadership and mentorship skills in high school, and their clear commitment to scholarly inquiry.

"FSI students have made great use of all the opportunities they've been given in life, so we believe that when they have the chance to be immersed in the resources and community at Princeton, they will be leaders on this campus," said Khristina Gonzalez, associate dean in the Office of the Dean of the College.

Students take "Ways of Knowing" and one of three quantitative courses: "Visualizing Data" (politics); "Laboratory Research in the Life Sciences (molecular biology); or "Foundations of Engineering." The two full-credit-bearing courses count toward graduation requirements.

"These classes allow the students to get a sense of what scholarly inquiry, conversation and community looks like at Princeton," said Gonzalez. She noted that FSI students enter their freshman year with two courses under their belt, which opens up time in their academic schedule over the course of their four years at Princeton to explore additional academic, co-curricular and leadership opportunities.

FSI's co-curricular and extracurricular programming introduces students to campus resources and residential life, including:

• Meet-and-greets with representatives of the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, the Davis International Center, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, among others
• "College Night" Dinner with the master, undergraduate and graduate students, and the directors of study and student life at each student's assigned residential college
• Dinner with Dean of the College Jill Dolan
• Workshops on academic topics ranging from "Efficient Reading Strategies" to "Getting a Jump on Research Opportunities"
• Social activities from tango lessons, recreational sports and outdoor movies to meditation with Matt Weiner, associate dean in the Office of Religious Life, and day trips to New York and Philadelphia.

Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI) students with President Christopher L. Eisgruber

The humanities course "Ways of Knowing," which is required for all FSI participants, features weekly colloquia. Above from left: Patricia Beltran-Cortez, Diana Ortiz and Suren Jamiyanaa chat with President Christopher L. Eisgruber, a 1983 Princeton alumnus and an expert on constitutional law, following his colloquium on constitutional interpretation. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

"As the new dean of the college, I'm very proud of the Freshman Scholars Institute, which offers a context in which first-year students can create micro-communities of interest and affinity before beginning their full orientation to Princeton in September," said Jill Dolan, the Annan Professor in English and professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, who was named dean of the college July 1. "The terrific students I've met this summer have demonstrated that they're curious and insightful about the rigorous academic work they’ve begun, and their various places within the larger Princeton campus community."

FSI students come from as nearby as East Brunswick and Trenton, New Jersey, and as far away as Kenya. This summer's group includes seven international students.

"When I came to FSI, I did not expect to find so many people who were as excited about changing the world and acquiring knowledge as I am," said Victoria Davidjohn, who was raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, when she was 9. "The range of perspectives, stories and outlooks that we all bring never ceases to blow my mind every single day."

Davidjohn said she chose Princeton because of its strong community.

"On my way back from Princeton Preview, I was wearing my Princeton sweatshirt, and a man at the Charlotte airport in an orange tie approached me and asked "Princetonian?" "Confused, I replied, "Yes?" and he immediately extended his hand to shake mine, and said 'Hi, I'm Class of '84!' I told him I was Class of '19 and he excitedly congratulated me and told me he was proud of my accomplishments, then welcomed me to the family. I knew I had made the right choice." 

Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI) in classroom

Erin Vearncombe (standing), a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, facilitates a small-group discussion with David Lopera (left), Olivia Parker, Nnenna Ibe and Derek Sawick during a daily seminar for the "Ways of Knowing" humanities course. (Photo by Jamie Saxon, Office of Communications)

'A thrilling intellectual adventure'

"Ways of Knowing" is the cornerstone of the FSI curriculum. "The goal of the course is to introduce students to the different ways that scholars make meaning out of our world," said Patrick Moran, a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program and coordinator of the course, who retooled the curriculum last summer based on faculty and student feedback.

"We asked faculty from across campus what concepts guided their scholarship," he said. These concepts are presented as key terms — vision, power, body, self/other, social change and time/space — informing weekly readings, writing assignments and lesson plans.

"The result is a thrilling intellectual adventure," Moran said. "Across six weeks, students shuttle from Plato's Athens to Charles Darwin's Galapagos Islands, from Stanley Milgram's psychology lab to Toni Morrison's America, from Sigmund Freud's couch to Albert Einstein's relative universe."

The course also features weekly colloquia given by a member of the Princeton faculty. On Aug. 5, President Christopher L. Eisgruber, a 1983 Princeton alumnus and an expert on constitutional law, spoke on constitutional interpretation.

Eisgruber used the recent 5-4 Supreme Court decision on Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage nationwide, as a jumping-off point to show how close reading of texts enable Supreme Court judges — and college students — to discuss abstract concepts. Projecting excerpts from the Fourteenth Amendment and the opinions of Justices Kennedy and Scalia onto a large screen, Eisgruber homed in on specific phrases such as "equal protection under the law" to illustrate the intricacies of constitutional interpretation.

Eisgruber told the students that close textual reading is important in all of their classes, a lesson he learned as an undergraduate. Recalling a course he took — and loved — in constitutional interpretation, he said he asked his preceptor if there were other courses related to law he could take. "He gave me some of the best advice — he said that would be the wrong thing to do, that I should be learning other things, and he recommended a course in comparative literature." Eisgruber said he learned that literary interpretation is also a form of close reading. "You can learn from one area and cross-pollinate," he said.

"President Eisgruber's talk was an eye-opening, thought-engaging experience for me," said Yuanyuan Zhao, the daughter of immigrants from Fujian, China, who moved to the Bronx in 2010. "I have always been told that people can interpret texts differently for certain purposes. However, having President Eisgruber pointing out where and how the Constitution is interpreted differently makes me rethink everything that I've learned," said Zhao, the first in her family to attend college.

In this video, students in "Foundations of Engineering," taught by Andrew Houck, associate professor of electrical engineering, launch the bottle rockets they created in the lab over four weeks — a hands-on design and engineering experience that included integrating physics and math skills to build individual circuit boards to track the flight and measure the acceleration of their rocket. (Video by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

A fully immersive lab experience

"Laboratory Research in the Life Sciences," taught by Heather Thieringer, senior lecturer in molecular biology, and "Foundations of Engineering," taught by Andrew Houck, associate professor of electrical engineering — made possible by a donation from Class of 1988 graduate Bob Peck — are new additions to the program this summer. They feature laboratory-based work with the goal of reducing attrition among students who have expressed an interest in those fields.

For Peck, the son of a butcher from Texas, coming to Princeton meant working hard to learn how to thrive at a competitive university. From his own experience, the history major, who studied pre-med and became a Rhodes Scholar, is interested in college access and in supporting students as they make the transition to college. On Aug. 10, Peck spent the day visiting the FSI program, speaking with students in the labs and at a barbecue dinner.

Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI) in lab

Bob Peck (left), a 1988 alumnus whose donation made possible the addition of two new quantitative FSI courses this summer — "Laboratory Research in the Life Sciences" and "Foundations of Engineering" — visits with Fernanda Fernandez and David Lopera in a molecular biology lab. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

Ana Esqueda, who is taking the molecular biology class, attended Trenton Central High School, where she said the resources were "far from plenty." She has enjoyed the opportunity to work in a fully equipped lab. FSI is the second leg of Esqueda's journey to Princeton. A first-generation student from Caracas, Venezuela, who lives in Hamilton, New Jersey, she also participated in the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP), a tuition-free program for high-achieving, low-income students from partner high schools in Mercer County, New Jersey.

"PUPP prepared me for the rigor of this University and encouraged me to strive for the best," said Esqueda. "In the same way, FSI is preparing me for the upcoming school year and introducing me to a large group of people who are extremely welcoming and encouraging."

Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI) in Philadelphia

A group of FSI students re-enact the famous "Rocky" scene on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art during a day trip. The students also spent a day in New York City. (Photo by Hooman Mahdavi)

Building 'pillars of support'

Nathan Phan, the son of Vietnamese immigrants and a first-generation college student from Rosemead, California, said at first he was very homesick. "Fortunately, my friends in my 'zee' [adviser] group with RCAs [resident college advisers] Judd Ziegler and Madeline Goertel and [associate director of FSI] Nimisha Barton have become pillars of support in my transition to being a Princeton student," he said.

Phan has also found academic support — and career inspiration — in the "Visualizing Data" class led by Kosuke Imai, professor of politics. "It has opened my eyes to the extensive types of careers that computer coding opens up, particularly journalism and computer graphics," said Phan, who attended the Princeton University Summer Journalism Program in 2014 and said it boosted his confidence to apply to Princeton.

Tylor Johnson of Brooklyn noted: "FSI is no piece of cake, with essays and problem sets due on a weekly basis. I have been challenged to think and express my thoughts in new ways. But in addition, I have also enjoyed my time making new friends and together discovering more about Princeton and its neighboring cities."

Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI) With Christina Gonzalez

Khristina Gonzalez, associate dean, Office of the Dean of the College (front row, far right), gathers with students on the steps of the School of Architecture. Back row from left: Amina Sahibousidq, Diana Ortiz, Patricia Beltran-Cortez and Karen Delgado. Front row from left: Noah Bramlage, Lucas Lee, Suren Jamiyanaa and Belinda Davis. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

Gonzalez's vision is for FSI to become a four-year experience for participants, with current FSI students becoming next year's mentors and leaders, serving in positions like course fellows or RCAs. This summer, several FSI alumni are involved in the program. For example, RCA Judd Ziegler is a member of the Class of 2016; Russell Dinkins, a 2013 alumnus, led a study break hip-hop class with Sylvia Okafor, a member of the Class of 2016 and artistic director of the Black Arts Company Dance; and Nick Williams, Class of 2015, serves as a McGraw Center learning consultant for FSI, working with students as they think through the best approaches to their scholarship at Princeton.

"We see FSI as a community of scholars and thinkers that should last through the students' whole time at Princeton," Gonzalez said. "The goal is to have a self-sustaining, mutually supportive community that is really about interdependent learning, social bonds and intellectual inquiry."

Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI) watching rocket launch

FSI participants cheer on their fellow students on Poe Field as they launch the bottle rockets they constructed in the "Foundations of Engineering" class. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)


Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI) group together

FSI students gather for a group photo during the program's Community Day on Poe Field. (Photo by Amy Hondo, FSI resident graduate student, Department of Politics)