Freshman Scholars Institute: Summer study leads to year-round success

Over the course of eight weeks this summer, 73 incoming members of the Class of 2022 are immersing themselves in Princeton’s vibrant academic and social life through the University’s Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI).

FSI provides a group of incoming students, primarily those who are first in their family to attend college and those coming from lower- to moderate-income backgrounds, with an early opportunity to experience the many academic and co-curricular resources that Princeton has to offer. In FSI, they have the chance to take seminar-style and lab courses in their areas of interest, interact with faculty members, and engage with a diverse community of highly motivated peers. Through this experience, FSI scholars prepare to achieve their academic, social and professional goals and to take their place as leaders on campus — and in the larger world.

“FSI helped alleviate so many of the worries I had as an incoming freshman,” said Linda Nie, a member of the Class of 2021 and FSI course fellow who attended the program in 2017. “Personally, I owe a lot to this program, and I’m very grateful to have been a part of it. But more importantly, it helped me build confidence in my own abilities as a student here at Princeton.”

Here’s a look inside a typical week in the 2018 Freshman Scholars Institute.

Monday: Learning how to learn 


“Ways of Knowing” is a required course for FSI participants. Students are introduced to critical reading, writing and thinking across disciplines. Each section is led by a Princeton faculty member who presents concepts such as close reading and interpretive writing by examining a variety of texts and authors with the students. This year, “Ways of Knowing” is centered around the theme of “Power and Institutions,” which can be interpreted broadly to include the construction of power around social, political and even biological worlds. 

“These assignments are going to prepare them not just for the work they’re going to see at Princeton their first academic semester but over the entirety of their careers,” said Erin Vearncombe, a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program.

Tuesday: Setting the goal posts for success


On Tuesday nights, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning offers workshops that help students hone the skills and strategies of learning and take advantage of their academic opportunities at Princeton. 

“One of the ways to get the most out of one’s education is to be intentional and purposeful about it,” said Nic Voge, a senior associate director at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. 

Each week’s workshop breaks down the demands, tasks and processes of Princeton coursework and assists students in aligning these with their long-term personal and academic goals. The sessions are led by former FSI participants who now act as course fellows through the Scholars Institute Fellows Program.

“I would like FSI students to know they can handle Princeton,” said Olivia Parker, a McGraw Learning Consultant, FSI course fellow and member of the Class of 2019. “I want them to know they can do it if they have some kind of game plan.”

Wednesday: Joining the community of scholars

Maggie O’Connell presents her research to FSI students

Maggie O’Connell, a junior in chemical and biological engineering and a ReMatch+ Summer Program participant, presents her research on hydrogels to FSI students attending the Summer Research Colloquium at Prospect House.

Communal meals on Wednesdays provide deeper opportunities for exploring academic life at Princeton, which is also largely social.

At breakfast, students dine with FSI faculty fellows and academic advisers in their residential colleges. In the evenings, the Community Dinner and Discussion Series, held at Prospect House, introduces students to scholarly conversation and connects them with professors and peers. This year’s speakers included Ruha Benjamin, associate professor of African American studies and Arthur H. Scribner Bicentennial Preceptor, and University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. The final installment featured a mock research conference organized by ReMatch, a mentoring program that connects Princeton undergraduates with graduate students.

“The road to research can seem really intimidating,” said Khristina Gonzalez, associate dean of the college. “What we love to do during the summer is to give our students exposure to the kind of research their near peers are doing. This was an opportunity not only to celebrate the great work that the students in the research programs have been doing over the summer, but to give our incoming students a sense of that in the next year they, too, can be spending the summer doing research.”

Thursday: Blasting toward success in the lab


FSI participants have the opportunity to explore one of three subject areas for their second course. In the sciences, they can choose to study molecular biology (MOL) or engineering. In these courses, they get their first taste for the rigor of those programs, from labwork and problem sets to independent research projects. 

“I feel MOL is the most beneficial to me because it introduces me to the type of classes I need to be taking if I’m going to be pre-med,” said Fedjine Victor.

Taj-Jahnae Brailsford-Forde, who is interested in studying chemical engineering and computer science, said she was grateful for the opportunity to make an accelerometer and learn MATLAB coding as part of the engineering class’ rocket-building project. “It’s made me so much more patient and persevering,” she said. “Not only do we get to build things, but we build our character, too.”

Friday: Delving into the world of data

Helen So and students listen to FSI presentation

Students in Will Lowe’s “Visualizing Data” course (POL) attend special sessions on Fridays led by industry leaders who demonstrate the use of data in their work. Here, Helen So and her classmates intently follow a presentation by Princeton alumnus Bruce Willsie, president and CEO of L2, Inc., which provides nonpartisan data intelligence to campaigns and issues groups. Willsie demonstrated his company’s visualization software that parses voter data down to the local level and showed how it could be used to understand voter behavior.

Students interested in the humanities often take “Visualizing Data,” offered by the Department of Politics, for their second academic course.

“Data analysis, programming and visualization are important to all kinds of subjects, from sociology and political science, through policy studies and psychology, into computing and the natural sciences,” said Will Lowe, a senior research specialist and summer lecturer in politics. “They may not appreciate it at the moment, but they’ll be rereading their course notes later.”

Every week students work through three problems that use real data taken from academic literature in political science, economics or policy. They also learn computer programming languages to communicate their findings graphically. On Fridays, the students attend lunch with a guest speaker who uses data analysis in his or her daily work. 

“We usually have a mix of visitors from government, survey firms, campaign analytics, but also Facebook, Google and New York Times,” Lowe said. “I tell the students to be ready to learn how to do crazy things with maddening but powerful tools in a short period of time.”

Saturday: Finding balance

FSI students in front of Williamsburg Bridge Brooklyn

FSI participants pause for pictures in front of the Williamsburg Bridge during a trip to New York City. The students stopped by the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn before breaking into groups that explored different cultural and historical sites in Manhattan.

A large part of the FSI experience is discovery, whether it’s understanding a research method or understanding one’s self. Saturday day trips are another way for students to envision themselves as individuals and as part of a larger community. This year’s cohort visited New York and Philadelphia. 

“It’s important students early on begin to see there’s much more beyond the world of Princeton,” said Edwin Coleman, an FSI resident graduate student, who led the Philadelphia tour. 

Shelby Sinclair, a resident graduate student who led the New York visit, said the trips provide a counterbalance to the pressure-filled academic space the students occupy throughout the summer and that they will encounter during the academic year. “They can think through what it means to take an exit from the life of the mind for a while,” she said. 

Sunday: Reinforcing knowledge for mastery

Fedjine Victor and Arianne Smith working on laptop
Winston Lie and Fernanda Fernandez writing on blackboard

FSI working groups give students the opportunity to learn from one another — something that will be critical for reinforcing and comprehending class material throughout their academic careers. Pictured are Fedjine Victor, left, and Arianne Smith, right.


Winston Lie, Class of 2020, left, and Fernanda Fernandez, Class of 2019, right, lead FSI’s molecular biology working group helping incoming students puzzle through problems they’ll face in class.

Weekends might be a time to relax, but they’re also a time to prepare for the week ahead. FSI working groups held on Sundays help FSI participants master course concepts, share and discuss academic concerns, and get to know fellow participants and current students. The groups are run by course fellows, former FSI students who volunteer to guide incoming first-year students through the program.

Although attendance at working groups isn’t mandatory, they tend to be well attended by students seeking help in their classes, said Nie, a course fellow for the molecular biology class. “There’s either a problem set or lab report due each week, so there is always something to work on,” Nie said. “We’ve done midterm review, clarified difficult concepts from class, and guided them through their lab reports. Sometimes, students even ask us questions about our experience with specific classes, or what it’s like to be pre-med at Princeton.”

Incoming student Aliza Haider said the FSI working groups are helpful on a variety of levels.

“It is really nice to be able to get help whenever I need it, and working in the working group environment really helps me focus and zone in on what I'm doing,” Haider said. “The course fellows are really helpful both academically and as mentors, helping me to see what I could be doing in the future.”