A college town simply isn’t the same without students. So when Princeton University undergraduates were sent home in March 2020 due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, both the students and Princeton town felt the void.
While local shops endured a loss of business and the vibrancy supplied by their usual foot traffic, students endured a loss of community. As undergraduates were invited back to campus in spring 2021, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate students proposed a way to reacclimate students to their peers and also to the shops that give Princeton its unique character.
Through Tigers in Town, the University provided funds for student events at local retail establishments. The gatherings gave students a way to socialize safely while COVID-19 restrictions were in effect on campus, and at the same time patronize businesses that needed a financial boost to stay afloat. The initiative also gave students an opportunity to experience local dining and other activities that might otherwise have been unaffordable.
Loosening of COVID-19 protocols since early 2021 will allow for a Tigers in Town expansion this fall, with new offerings and participating businesses being introduced, including stores in the Princeton Shopping Center.
The initial spring round of events "encouraged students to get outside with one another and to build community, and in a way that was also compliant with University COVID-19 policies at the time,” said Ian Deas, assistant dean and director of student leadership and engagement in the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students. “So it was an opportunity for them to connect in town and also connect to the local businesses.”
The Office of the Vice President of Campus Life and the Department of Public Safety, along with the residential colleges, the Undergraduate Student Government and several student organizations, organized events in collaboration with the program.
In all, $171,401 was distributed to more than 40 local businesses through Tigers in Town.
“It was a win-win initiative,” said Omar Delgado, owner of Say Cheez. “We would love to see this program stay for good. Perhaps the learning about the experience is to understand that we need to involve students with the community, and the community needs to see the students.”
Tigers in Town programming throughout spring 2021 largely centered around food and beverage offerings, but it also was embraced by other merchants.
Tico Tuesdays, sponsored by the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, were established at Tico’s Eatery and Juice Bar, allowing students to order up to $10 worth of items from Tico’s regular menu. The senior class government created Thesis Fridays, where seniors received a $5 credit at participating coffee shops each week before 9:30 a.m. to get an early, energized start on their required theses.
Paper Source partnered with Tigers in Town, offering students stationery to write thank you notes to members of the University community and beyond. JaZams toy store also encouraged more interactive gatherings, hosting a puzzle event and a Hacky Sack giveaway.
Early in the pandemic, the number of students was limited for each event to abide by state laws that restricted business occupancy. Participants registered for time slots to avoid overcrowding, and they used QR codes to check in.
Students took advantage of the many Tigers in Town offerings, logging 21,378 registrations for 240 different events held during the spring 2021 semester. The Class of 2024, which arrived on campus for the first time in the spring and had not yet had a chance to experience local businesses and campus events, logged an 82% participation rate.
The student visits also encouraged additional business, with 53% of store owners reporting that students purchased additional items.
Seventy-two percent of the Tigers in Town events were held at minority and/or woman-owned businesses.
Said Deas: “We learned we have many grateful and collaborative partners in town. We want to continue to nurture those relationships because it really was a great experience for everyone involved.”
Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) has continued funding the initiative this fall, partly to reignite campus life as the entire undergraduate student body returned to campus, but also as part of a larger effort to improve access to local dining establishments.
Student groups can apply for Tigers in Town funding to create their own events. USG committees also are finding ways to use the money to build community among students and to expand equity and access.
“Tigers in Town is one of two initiatives we’re working on this semester to improve low-income students’ access to eating on Nassau,” said Lehman Montgomery, Class of 2022, campus and community affairs chair for USG. “Tigers in Town is a great first step. We’re looking to provide a more sustainable option.”
Montgomery said USG hopes to build on the success of Tigers in Town and create a community dining partnership with nearby restaurants, perhaps as part of a student meal plan.
Christian Potter, Class of 2022, USG’s president, said the student senate was committed to maintaining Tigers in Town. “We wanted to protect the Tigers in Town program because it was so wildly successful last year,” he said. “Long-term, we hope programs like this persist.”