Students in the fellowship pose for a photo

Students deepen connections to history, people and place through Trenton Summer Fellowship

Aug. 14, 2019, 12:24 p.m.

The Trenton Summer Fellowship offers weekly events to introduce Princeton University students interning, researching or working in Princeton or Trenton to each other and the city of Trenton. The fellowship is a pilot program with the John H. Pace Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement.

A small group of Princeton University undergraduate and graduate students stand with John Hatch, a Trentonian, architect and Princeton Class of 1984 graduate, outside the Roebling Lofts. The renovated apartments occupy what was once an old cable ropes factory on Clark Street in Trenton, New Jersey. Around the lofts other factory buildings are home to shops, community organizations like the Trenton Circus Squad, and services like the Social Security Administration. Other buildings remain vacant. 

The scene offers a juxtaposition of rebound and decline, of past and present, all within a 360-degree view. “Like most American cities, Trenton faces serious challenges,” said Hatch. “We have lost much of our industry; many of our residents are relatively poor and relatively undereducated; because much of the property in the city is owned by government entities and not-for-profits, the property tax base is small and the tax-rate high. ... On the other hand, Trenton is a great place to live, work and raise a family. I’ve lived here for 31 years and feel blessed that I’ve had this opportunity.” 

Meeting with Hatch is just one way participants in the Trenton Summer Fellowship, a pilot program with the John H. Pace Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, are gaining insight and appreciation for the Trenton community. 

Kaylin Xu and Rick Ober

Kaylin Xu, Class of 2022, and Rick Ober, a Princeton alumnus, help sort computer hardware for Trenton Digital Initiative, a volunteer organization with the United Way of Greater Mercer County that refurbishes computers and distributes them to schools and organizations in Trenton.

Organized by Melody Zheng, Class of 2022 from Oakland, California, the Trenton Summer Fellowship offers weekly events to introduce students interning, researching or working in Princeton or Trenton to each other and the city of Trenton. To date, the group has participated in many activities including dinners, baseball games, a tour of Trenton and service in the community. 

Hatch, an architect at Clarke Caton Hintz in Trenton, believes it's important to share Trenton’s story. “I believe that a thriving Trenton will be a benefit, not just to its residents, but to the entire region,” he said. “For example, one could say that Princeton University lives in kind of a safe, suburban bubble. Having easy access to a thriving, gritty, artsy, diverse community would be a great asset for students, faculty and staff alike. Trenton is central New Jersey’s downtown.”

Many of the students involved in the events have been able to connect the work they are doing this summer to the interactions they have had through the fellowship. Katja Luxem, a graduate student doing thesis research in geosciences, has been able to see how research like hers can be applied to making changes in the real world. 

“My favorite aspect of the Trenton Summer Fellowship has been getting to interact with people who are actively shaping the future of their community, like child welfare activist Tamika Somorin, architect John Hatch and environmentalist Jay Watson [with the New Jersey Conservation Fund],” Luxem said. “My graduate research is answering basic scientific questions about how microorganisms work and shape our environment, but it takes the work of people like Tamika, John and Jay to turn that type of information into something that benefits all of us.”

Shoichi Hayashi, Class of 2022 from Stone Mountain, Georgia, worked as a Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) summer intern with John Higgins, associate professor of geosciences, on his PEI-funded project measuring the concentration of lead in water samples and paint samples from residents in Trenton and also finding the isotopes of lead in the water samples to see if there are any correlations between sources of lead in the community. He too has seen connection between his work and the fellowship’s events.

“While listening to stories about which streets are considered safe and which are not, where different events occur at Trenton, I found myself recognizing the street names from the addresses written on the water samples back in the lab, which gave life and more meaning to these streets rather than just data I was sorting through,” Hayashi reflected. 

Overall, the students involved in the program had an immersive Trenton experience which allowed them to be exposed to many different aspects of the city that they may not have otherwise been exposed to. 

Jessica Chen, Class of 2022 from Fremont, California, worked as a PEI summer intern with Sustainable Princeton, a nonprofit organization, to help out with emission reduction calculations and cost estimates of specific actions in the organization’s Climate Action Plan for the town of Princeton. Chen’s perspective of Trenton was transformed after her involvement in the Trenton Summer Fellowship.

“This fellowship exposed me to an area that is usually associated with negative stereotypes, yet I was able to see how the community interacted and bonded together — in a sense, it was no different from other cities I have been to. Trenton is a very historically rich area, and I am grateful to have seen the museum displays of pottery, gorgeous and symbolic pieces of art from residents, and continued, sustainable development that make up what Trenton really is,” said Chen.