Putting service into focus at Princeton

May 16, 2019 10 a.m.

Princeton's new Service Focus program comprises three components: a summer internship, a Service Focus class and a Service Focus student cohort. Students in the Food Justice cohort visited Carversville Farm in Pennsylvania to learn how the nonprofit farm produces sustainable food for donation to populations who lack access to a balanced diet. 

In its inaugural year, Service Focus brought together 78 undergraduates committed to bridging service and learning across the first two years of their Princeton University experience.

Service Focus, which helps students form their own commitment to service and make service an integral part of their Princeton experience, consists of three components:

Last week, the first group of Service Focus students celebrated the completion of the program’s first year. Looking ahead, 80 first-year students were welcomed to Service Focus during a day-long summit on May 7.

Student crouching in field
Play Video: A snapshot of the Food Justice Cohort

The Service Focus cohorts were small group experiences led by a faculty mentor. This year, students were divided into eight cohorts to study different subject areas. This video provides a snapshot of the Food Justice Cohort led by Tessa Lowinske Desmond, an associate research scholar in American studies.

Director of Service Focus Yi-Ching Ong welcomed the new students during the event, calling on them to challenge and inspire each other during the next year.

“Each of you, in joining this program, have shown that you are committed to following a path of service through and beyond Princeton — that you would like your Princeton education to reflect the informal motto of ‘Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity,’” Ong said. “In choosing a path of service, you are choosing a path in which there are no easy solutions. We hope that you’ll look to this community for support as you learn and explore. You have each other to share with and lean on — in your cohorts, as well as program-wide. We hope that you’ll challenge and inspire each other.”

Service Focus is a collaboration of the Office of the Dean of the College, the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life and the Pace Center for Civic Engagement. Below, a handful of outgoing Service Focus students answer questions about their experiences and share what it has meant to them to connect service and learning at Princeton.

Chitra Parikh

Chitra Parikh

Chitra Parikh

Summer internship: I was a design thinking associate for the Tiger Challenge program at the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education. Design thinking is a creative problem-solving methodology. I mentored a team of students working to address communication gaps and trust issues between patients and providers at a local teaching hospital.

Service Focus class: “Creativity, Innovation and Design.” The engineering class taught us how to develop a creative mindset and conducted a design thinking project to create an innovative approach for building relationships across political differences on campus.

Service Focus cohort: Education Cohort led by Jennifer Jennings, professor of sociology and public affairs.

How did your internship, course and cohort experiences connect with each other?

I have woven together my internship, course and cohort experiences through the use of design thinking as a problem-solving framework. The connection between my internship, class and cohort impacted my Service Focus experience because it has allowed me to further define what service means to me. This connection has helped shape my personal definition of service in terms of innovation, rather than viewing service and innovation as completely independent of one another.

What was your favorite part of Service Focus?

One memory that stands out was, with the help of Professor Jennings and Kira O'Brien at the Pace Center, being able to run a workshop on ideation for my cohort by applying a tool commonly used in the design thinking process.

How did Service Focus help inform or change your academic or extracurricular interests?

Personally, Service Focus has affirmed my interest in health care and how I would like to create an impact in the medical community. For instance, through all of the components of Service Focus and especially through my internship, I learned that I am particularly passionate about human-centered problems (relating to experiences, programming and services) in medicine. Participating in Service Focus and approaching community wellbeing through a public health lens has also affirmed my interest in medical school after Princeton.

Why should first-year students consider joining Service Focus?

Service Focus allows you to think about your education far beyond the classroom and into the community. Service Focus is an incredibly inspiring experience, and it teaches you about how to create an impact (whether that be on an academic field, an individual, a community, etc.) in a very tangible manner!

Dimitris Ntaras

Dimitris Ntaras

Dimitris Ntaras

Summer internship: I worked with Emory University, sharing my time between the biophysics research group in the Department of Physics and the Rollins School of Public Health. There, I conducted research and worked on finalizing my concept for an affordable water purification device.

Service Focus course: “The Anthropology of Development."

Service Focus cohort: Sustainability Cohort led by Sigrid Adriaenssens, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

How did your internship, course and cohort experiences connect with each other?

While at Emory University, I worked on finalizing my concept for an affordable water purification device. With the ambition of providing meaningful service to the communities that need it the most, I also communicated with nongovernmental organizations in the field in Kenya to determine what people wanted. I ended up with more than 200 pages of raw data with no idea of how to proceed with interpreting and exchanging useful information from it.

Back on campus, my anthropology class came at exactly the right time, providing me with a comprehensive bibliography and mentoring opportunities for me to make sense of what I had in front of me, as well as grapple with key questions of what my role as a provider should be. Throughout this intense period of analysis and personal discovery, I was glad to be meeting regularly with my cohort, where, with our faculty mentor, we talked about questions of what sustainable cities are, and how people create structures that sometimes succeed and other times fail. Through all this, I developed a healthy understanding of what I should be doing with this venture, as well as what I want my role to be overall in resolving similar global health challenges.

What was your favorite part of Service Focus?

As part of Service Focus, I had the opportunity to present my personal research that I developed throughout the fall semester to a community of very interesting scholars at the Engaged Scholarship and Social Justice Undergraduate Research Conference that took place at Harvard University in early April. This, for me, was an exciting opportunity, and I thoroughly enjoyed not just presenting, but also engaging with other people with whom I found had a very similar strong drive to get out of their institutions to the field and try and create a positive impact for the world. It was the moment I realized that I belonged where I had chosen to be.

How did Service Focus help inform or change your academic or extracurricular interests?

Service Focus has changed my goals drastically. I came into Princeton thinking I wanted to focus in science, driven by the role it boasted in solving the world's greatest problems, but it was through the different curricular and co-curricular aspects of Service Focus that I understood how the world's greatest problems are also addressed in a much more direct way ... by people in social entrepreneurship, community-engaged social science scholars, and people in direct service. Now, I am majoring in anthropology and am taking Program for Community Engaged Scholarship (ProCES) and entrepreneurship courses as much as I can, as I try to build my capacity for dealing with and affecting key social issues, particularly in the area of community health.

Why should first-year students consider joining Service Focus?

If you come in with a mindset to do something positive for the world — and I believe more people do that than those identifying it in dialogues across campus — you need to be in Service Focus. You do not have to have identified an issue you would give everything for, you do not have to be a social justice warrior to engage in meaningful conversations about service. What you do need is an open mind and eagerness to explore the different ways that you, as an individual, are and can be affecting the world around you.

Mackenzie Meyer

Mackenzie Meyer

Mackenzie Meyer interned in Vietnam last summer, teaching English and sports to seventh- and eighth-graders through Coach for College. 

Summer internship: I participated in Coach for College. I’m on the women’s softball team and Coach for College supports Princeton athletes to teach English and sports to seventh- and eighth-graders in Vietnam.

Service Focus course: “Political Theory.” The class explored ideas of individual ethics and political community, the ethics of political rule, freedom and slavery, and equality and inequality in political thought.

Service Focus cohort: Political Polarization Cohort led by Miguel Centeno, the Musgrave Professor of Sociology and a professor of sociology and international affairs.

How did your internship, course and cohort experiences connect with each other?

I really felt like the idea of service and community was reinforced through the three components of the Service Focus program. My internship allowed me to see with my own eyes what service looked like and what I could do to directly help. My class allowed me to explore different aspects of community, such as government. Finally, my cohort gave me the chance to engage with students and faculty to create something that I had a say in and that I thought was important. It let me take all that I had learned and apply it in a meaningful way on campus.

What was your favorite part of Service Focus?

My favorite part of Service Focus has been our monthly cohort meetings discussing political polarization. Being a politics major, this topic is something that I enjoy exploring, especially with my peers. I also enjoyed creating our group project “People Like Us.” Throughout the year, we determined it was difficult to have conversations regarding politics on Princeton’s campus without knowing the person on the other end of it. So we developed “People Like Us” to match students together with different life experiences via a survey we created. The goal is for those students to then engage in dialogue and expand their sense of community.

How did Service Focus help inform or change your academic or extracurricular interests?

Service Focus is the reason why I am now involved in and plan to be involved in so many service activities around campus. It really introduced me to all of the service opportunities that there are at Princeton. Though I do not know what I hope to make a career out of yet, I think that this program put another option of what I can do in my head, such as working for a nonprofit.

Why should first-year students consider joining Service Focus?

I would 100% encourage an incoming student to participate in Service Focus. By participating, you are instantly introduced to new people who you become friends with, and you also get to establish a one-on-one relationship with the professor leading your cohort. I think it is also a great way to open the door to all of the service opportunities at Princeton.

Toyosi Oluwole

Toyosi Oluwole

Toyosi Oluwole (far left) talks with students and faculty in the Service Focus Health Care Cohort. The cohort was led by João Biehl (third from right), the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology. 

Summer internship: I worked with the Levolosi Health Centre in Arusha, Tanzania.

Service Focus course: “Poverty in America." 

Service Focus cohort: I was involved with the Health Care Cohort led by João Biehl, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology.

How did your internship, course and cohort experiences connect with each other?

Together our cohort proposed and worked on a project we named, “Documenting Visions of Health in Kensington.” In this project, we partnered with Dr. Bon S. Ku at Thomas Jefferson University, the Health Design Lab at Thomas Jefferson University and Esperanza Health Centre in Philadelphia. We conducted interviews with important staff at Esperanza and speakers affiliated with the Design Lab to sculpt narratives that shed light on the lived experience of an opioid addict in Kensington.

The Kensington section of Philadelphia is an area with a high poverty rate; therefore the concepts and statistics shared in my class, “Poverty in America,” helped shed light and bring context to how the manifestations of drug addiction occurred in the city, and why organizations like Esperanza are integral in the community. Esperanza provides treatment options to both insured and uninsured patients, including Medication-Assisted Treatment for those battling with addiction. The cohort experience helped tie together different perspectives from everyone’s diverse Service Focus classes, bringing a unique conversation to each meeting.

What was your favorite part of Service Focus?

I have thoroughly enjoyed the service project and learning about such a critical health issue in America. The fact that Philadelphia is very near to Princeton and that Philadelphia has been a city that has been heavily impacted by the opioid epidemic, I have felt very informed and humbled to make a small, but critical difference. In addition to that, sharing these eye-opening moments with my cohort have produced treasurable memories and experiences.

How did Service Focus help inform or change your academic or extracurricular interests?

Service Focus has further enhanced my passion for global health and exploring more health issues in the United States. It has further informed my passion for medicine and global health.

Why should first-year students consider joining Service Focus?

You never know what you can learn more about the world around you and the people around you. In addition, by taking part in Service Focus, you have the chance to learn more about yourself and your passions. Service Focus is a great way to zoom into a topic of your interest and truly dig deep into exploring depths beyond your imagination. Bringing experiences outside the "Princeton Bubble" on campus will allow you to be able to think the world more critically and holistically. It is truly an amazing experience.

Kelton Chastulik

Kelton Chastulik

Kelton Chastulik

Summer internship: I was a Community Action (CA) Fellow on campus. As a CA Fellow, I played an administrative role in creating the service and learning experiences that first-year students took part in during Orientation to Princeton.

Service Focus course: “Creativity, Innovation and Design." 

Service Focus cohort: Gun Violence Cohort led by Heather Howard, a lecturer in public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Health and Wellbeing. We engaged in creating and having public discourse about gun violence. We spoke with politicians and activists from the Princeton area about gun violence broadly and how we can engage public figures in these tense discussions.

How did your internship, course and cohort experiences connect with each other?

Through my internship, my Service Focus course and Service Focus cohort, I gained skills and techniques that have influenced the service work I carry out back home in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Although the three were unaligned in subject matter, my cohort, course and internship were all rooted in having an impact in the communities we're serving and recognizing different ways to make that impact. Whether it's through community organizing, like my CA Fellowship, or designing a solution like in “Creativity, Innovation and Design,” or having intentional public discourse like my cohort, it all comes back to making an impact on top of learning about the issues. I hope to continue to mine benefits and skills from the three as I continue my service-focused experience at Princeton.

What was your favorite part of Service Focus?

My favorite aspect was definitely the interaction between faculty and students. Working with Professor Howard was an awesome opportunity and I feel that I've made a great connection with someone that is passionate about service work and students. On many occasions, I have seen Professor Howard in the dining hall or on campus and have taken time to catch up with her just about my life at Princeton and home.

How did Service Focus help inform or change your academic or extracurricular interests?

Service Focus affirmed how important service focused work is to me in both my co-curricular activities and my academic studies. Although most of my service in my life is off campus and focused on my hometown, Service Focus informed me about the importance of connecting powerful rhetoric and public service work with thoughtful and intelligent academics. Although indirectly, Service Focus has influenced the way I think about my career path after Princeton in that I would like to focus on the public sphere and make change through a range of possibilities.

Why should first-year students consider joining Service Focus?

Service as a lens is an incredibly well-informed way of experiencing your academics at the University. As a way to get out of the classroom and theory, speaking with those who do important social justice work helps aid students in their studies. For example, speaking with educators and educational equity activists helps aid an educational policy student. On top of this, service brings a real, collective feel to the University and its academics that sometimes feels individual.

Joao Biehl teaching a class

"Medical Anthropology" was one of many classes designated as a Service Focus course this year. The class is taught by João Biehl, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology. Biehl also was the faculty mentor for a Service Focus cohort on health care. Many of the Service Focus students in the Health Care Cohort also took "Medical Anthropology," bridging their service and academic experiences.