Members of Princeton University’s Class of 2023 fanned out across New Jersey and along the East Coast during the first week of September to participate in three signature Orientation experiences — Community Action, Dialogue and Difference in Action, and Outdoor Action.
Over the course of five days, students bonded through a variety of small-group activities designed to help ease their transition to college while learning about and engaging with the larger world around them.
Community Action (CA), coordinated by the John H. Pace ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, introduces first-year students to community at Princeton and beyond. Approximately 620 students joined “micro-communities” at six primary locations throughout New Jersey to share their time and talents with local residents and organizations and to engage with issues related to sustainability, youth, education, hunger, law and justice, refugees and forced migration, and more.
“CA will be the first-years’ first experiences with service through Princeton University and will be many students’ first visit to Trenton or North Jersey or the Pocono Environmental Education Center,” said Jerry Huang, a sophomore and CA fellow. “Having an Orientation program that has such a large focus on service and the surrounding regions definitely helps incoming students acclimate themselves to Princeton and the cultural influences that surround us.”
New student Kaitlee Ornelas helped host a backpack drive and a carnival for children — complete with a face-painting station and balloon animals — at the Get SET After School Program at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton.
“What I’ve been doing this week, learning about service, really taught me that community is really important at Princeton,” she said.
Kelsey Franklin of the Class of 2023 joined an arts and advocacy group that painted murals on the bathroom walls of a middle school, helped a children’s choir to organize its sheet music and classrooms, and also painted boarded-up homes in Trenton.
“The friends I made this week are going to be amazing — they’re all over campus — so it’ll give me a window into making even more new friends,” she said. “[S]eeing the area around is really helpful to create a wider sense of where the campus is in the world.”
Dialogue and Difference in Action
About 50 members of the Class of 2023 attended Dialogue and Difference in Action (DDA), which held its five-day retreat at Stony Point Center in Stony Point, New York. DDA provides first-year students the opportunity to engage in critical conversations around identity, power, privilege and difference — both in the context of the Princeton University community and society at-large.
Trained student leaders, professional staff members and an outside facilitator led students through small-group work and interactive large-group exercises to further explore their own identities and to develop the knowledge and skills to delve into the realities of racism, sexism, homophobia, religious and other conscious or unconscious biases.
The week’s activities culminated in a facilitated discussion with members of Not in Our Town, a nonprofit organization in Princeton whose mission is to stop hate, address bullying and build safe, inclusive communities for all.
“I think, for me, DDA is always such an eye-opening experience,” said Scooter Liapin, a senior and DDA student facilitator. “Having been a student leader in the program for two years, I can certainly say that although group dynamics change, I’m constantly blown away by the discussions and knowledge that incoming students bring into the space before we even engage with DDA material.”
“I walked into DDA not really knowing what to expect — I left with a new family,” said Cici Guidry, a first-year student. “Opening my eyes to how the ‘real world’ works, DDA taught me to see the potential that our society can reach when everyone accepts empathy and learning as core values. DDA gave me an unwavering foundation for my first year, a foundation that I know I can lean upon whenever I find myself struggling, and for that I will be forever grateful to the friends that I made over the course of those few days.”
Through activities such as camping, canoeing, biking and hiking, Outdoor Action allows incoming undergraduates to disconnect from their many responsibilities and distractions to establish new friendships. About 608 students joined 71 trips in eight Eastern states extending from Massachusetts to Virginia.
Chris Leahy, a sophomore, said he chose to lead an OA group this year because the transition into college can be intimidating, and the experience of an outdoor adventure can help unpack many of the initial worries students have when they are entering their first year of studies.
“I believe OA is a very effective means of transitioning, because those anxieties are put on the back burner initially when faced with the challenges of the outdoors,” he said. “The time spent in a small group allows many of these questions to come out naturally through conversations.”
Elizabeth Zheleznyakova, a first-year student who attended an OA trip to the Watershed Institute in Hopewell, New Jersey, said she picked up useful skills including how to pitch a tent, cook meals, and how to safely backpack and hike. But the trip was more than a primer on roughing it outdoors.
“I appreciated the time away from electronic devices and the chaos of Orientation, and the beautiful surroundings,” she said. “I thought that was grounding and helped me develop a calmer mindset for when we got back to campus. Most of all, I’m grateful for the experience of connecting with the other freshmen and the leaders. Because we were outside together all day, every day, hiking for long distances and sleeping in tents, we bonded quickly and formed lasting friendships.”
“Now that we have returned to campus, I think that the most valuable result of OA for me is having a network of several friends across a few residential colleges,” she added. “I hope that those friendships will remain and lead to other connections.”