Students watch as the kite flyers walk up the chapel aisle

President Eisgruber shares personal lessons of resilience with the Class of 2025

Princeton University’s Opening Exercises, held Sunday, Aug. 29, at the University Chapel, welcomed the Class of 2025 and marked the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year.

At Opening Exercises on Sunday, Aug. 29, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber welcomed the Class of 2025 and shared with them lessons from a personal health challenge for facing moments of difficulty.

Eisgruber disclosed he was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, a type of benign, non-cancerous brain tumor that can cause loss of hearing, balance or the ability to control facial muscles.

“I hope you will have many happy experiences along the way, but I know there will also be moments of challenge and difficulty as you travel the path that lies ahead,” Eisgruber said. “As you begin that journey today, I would like to share with you a challenge that I have confronted recently, and describe four lessons that I draw from it and that might be relevant to your time at Princeton.”

President Eisgruber at the podium during Opening Exercises 2021

In his annual address to the incoming class, University President Christopher L. Eisgruber shared lessons from his personal struggle after being diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, a type of benign, non-cancerous brain tumor.

This year’s Opening Exercises marked the official start of the 2020-21 academic year and the first time since March 2020 that Princeton has resumed full, in-person teaching and operations.

Opening Exercises dates to at least 1802, and it has been held in the University Chapel since 1929. The interfaith ceremony features the president’s address as well as hymns, readings, prayers and the awarding of undergraduate academic prizes. Classes begin on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

After leaving the chapel, members of the incoming class participated in the traditional Pre-rade. They were joined by members of the Class of 2024 — who were unable to attend in-person Opening Exercises last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and cheered on by other students, alumni, faculty and staff as they symbolically entered the front campus through FitzRandolph Gate.

College banners come into the chapel

The event is one of Princeton’s many cherished and long-standing traditions. The incoming class processes in by residential college, each represented by gonfalons, decorative banners containing the coats of arms of the six colleges: Butler, First, Forbes, Mathey, Rockefeller and Whitman.

Opening Exercises was videotaped and will be archived online for later viewing. Watch Opening Exercises on the University's YouTube channel. Opening Exercises and the Pre-rade also can be viewed on the University’s Facebook page.

Eisgruber expressed his excitement at the return of students to Princeton’s campus. “It is so good to see you and so good to be together,” he said. “I have missed these moments of collective joy and excitement over the past year.”

He told the students that doctors made his neuroma diagnosis five years ago during an MRI exam for an unrelated issue, and that his journey since has invited reflection on life’s challenges.

Drummers on the quad

African drummers lent their celebratory beats to the day, leading the Opening Exercises procession into the University Chapel. From left to right: Jean-Lemke Charlot II, Adewole Love, Vadio Diomande and Joseph Barnes.

The first lesson Eisgruber drew from his condition was about how we discuss difficult topics. His doctor, in delivering the diagnosis, described the neuroma as a “benign growth that had probably been there for a long time,” when he could have described it as “a potentially fatal brain tumor.”

The news was difficult to process even when framed more gently, Eisgruber said.

“The quality of your Princeton education will depend on your willingness and ability to participate in conversations about sensitive and difficult ideas,” he said. “You might not need to discuss anybody’s life-altering medical diagnosis, but you will certainly need to talk about profoundly important and emotionally charged topics such as race, sexuality and justice.”

Students from Whitman College

Members of Whitman College show their residential college pride, flashing a “W” hand gesture.

Eisgruber said his second lesson was about the value of science, institutions and objectivity. He expressed wonder at the medical understanding and technology that preserved his life.

“I hope that your Princeton education will increase both your scientific literacy and your capacity to sustain and improve our civic institutions,” Eisgruber said. “Those institutions desperately need our attention.”

Four jugglers behind Nassau Hall

Student jugglers show off their skills on Cannon Green.

His third lesson involved understanding the unseen challenges in our lives.

“Everyone has vulnerabilities, pain and struggles they conceal from the world,” Eisgruber said. “That is true no matter how impressive, authoritative or composed someone may appear.”

He encouraged students to seek out support when they need it and to remember that others share similar struggles.

“As you interact with people around you — including not only other students, but also faculty, staff and, yes, even administrators — I hope you will keep in mind that they may be dealing with troubles that you cannot see or that they are not ready or able to share. That condition is part of what makes us human, and one of the many reasons why we need to treat each other humanely.”

Students on the steps of Blair Arch

Students enjoy a shared meal on the steps of Blair Arch.

Finally, Eisgruber spoke of his humility at the realization that his condition was out of his control.

“We are all fragile and flawed, yet we can reach for the stars and do tremendous good,” he said. “That astonishing combination of weakness and courage is part of what defines the human condition. We share it without regard to race, national origin, religion, sexual identity or political belief. We share it across all the wedges that too often divide us.”

A combination of our human frailty and highest aspirations is what animates the University’s mission, Eisgruber said.

“I am happy, indeed, I’m downright overjoyed and exhilarated that you join that quest today,” he said.

The full text of the speech can be read on the Office of the President’s website.

Stents enjoying picnics in front of Alexander Hall

Students take advantage of the opportunity to gather outdoors and become acquainted with their new classmates on Alexander Beach.

Since their arrival on campus, members of the Class of 2025 have participated in Princeton’s three signature Orientation experiences — Community Action, Dialogue and Difference in Action, and Outdoor Action.

The 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, coordinated by the John H. Pace ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, introduces first-year students to community at Princeton and beyond. Dialogue and Difference in Action 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.

Outdoor Action allows incoming undergraduates to disconnect from their many responsibilities and distractions to establish new friendships through activities such as camping, canoeing, biking and hiking.

The Class of 2025 also attended a Pre-read Assembly at McCarter Theatre Center with Eisgruber and Jennifer Morton, Class of 2002, the author of this year’s Princeton Pre-read book, “Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility.”

Published by Princeton University Press in 2019, “Moving Up Without Losing Your Way” examines the ethical and emotional tolls paid by college students from disadvantaged backgrounds seeking upward mobility and discusses what educators can do to help these students flourish. The book draws on Morton’s own experiences as a Peruvian immigrant and first-generation college student.

  • four students work on a wooden structure

    Since their arrival on campus, members of the Class of 2025 have participated in Princeton’s three signature Orientation experiences — Community Action, Dialogue and Difference in Action, and Outdoor Action. Pictured: Community Action first-year students build a stormwater garden box for Sustainable Princeton. The boxes were later delivered to residents in Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood to help reduce flooding and help manage stormwater runoff. From left to right: Conor Warren, Raymundo Mateo, Pascal Nabare and Katerine Hovnanian-Alexanian.

  • Students playing instruments in an orchestra

    Community Action students exploring the theme of arts and education teamed up with members of the Trenton Central High School (TCHS) orchestra to play together. Playing cello are Princeton University first-year students Angie Challman (center left, in black mask) and Kate Weseley-Jones (center right, in black mask).

  • 4 students in the woods

    At the Watershed Institute’s nature reserve in Hopewell, New Jersey, members of the Community Action sustainability theme helped remove invasive plants. From left to right: first-year students Isabella Checa, Tyler Hong and Rebecca Zhu, and Community Action leader Payton Croskey, a junior.

  • Students in kayaks on the water

    Outdoor Action participants relax on the D&R Canal. This year more than 600 first-year students joined Outdoor Action, guided by 142 leaders, 12 support staff and 11 command center staff.

  • Students at an event

    Students take a break from their conversations about identity to enjoy a lighthearted moment at the Dialogue and Difference in Action program during Orientation.

  • Students sit in a circle to discuss

    Fifty members of the incoming class participated in Dialogue and Difference in Action, which provides an opportunity for first-year students to engage in critical dialogues focused on identity, power, privilege and difference within the contexts of the Princeton University community and in society at large.