A student points to a flyer

'What can I do?' How to put your values into action

Senior Loren Ormënaj (right) talks with senior Kevin Boateng about the Princeton University chapter of Engineers Without Borders at a recent Student Activities Fair. Engineers Without Borders is one of many action-oriented student groups aimed at helping other communities.

If the day’s headlines and current events have you feeling strong emotions, channeling your energy toward service and civic engagement can help you reset, connect, and stay well. 

“Taking action can be a great way to push back against cynicism and hopelessness,” said Calvin Chin, director of Counseling and Psychological Services with University Health Services at Princeton University. “When the world seems overwhelming, it can feel positive to take some small action. It can help you feel a little less helpless, and remind you that change is possible.”

“Human beings crave connection and community,” added Chin. “By helping others, you can remind yourself of your shared common humanity. It’s also a great way to meet people who share in your commitment to helping others, and even if you don’t end up becoming friends with the people you volunteer with, seeing friendly faces and being seen in turn can make you feel better.”

As part of its work to prepare undergraduate and graduate students to be engaged citizens, the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement connects students and community to create positive change. With tips and insight from the Field Guide to Service and community leaders, here are six ways to put your values into action. 

1. Pause to process your emotions

Just like you need to stop, drop, and roll when you catch on fire, Monica Johnson, staff psychologist with Counseling and Psychological Services at Princeton University, says it's important to stop and take stock of your emotions before taking action. 

“With all the intense things that are happening sociopolitically we can feel a range of intense emotions and want to do something with them right away instead of just sitting with them,” she said. “But taking time to pause and just to allow yourself to experience your emotions is super important. When you sit with your emotions and acknowledge how it is you are feeling you can ground yourself and move forward from there.”

To reflect, you ask yourself:

  • What just happened? 
  • What did you observe?
  • How are you feeling?  
  • Why are you feeling this way? 

2. Tap into your values 

What drives you? What motivates you? Why do you want to take action or respond? Understanding your values before you engage gives you a clear picture of who you are, what you believe in, and what you stand for. 

“In the face of a crisis, it can be tempting to jump in with good intentions,” said Charlotte Collins, senior associate director of the Pace Center. “But doing so without an understanding of why you want to engage can waste valuable energy on reactionary activism.”

To identify and examine your values, consider:

  • What was a time when you felt called to action? What motivated you? 
  • What are your passion areas? What do you love about them?
  • What skills do you have?
  • Who do you know who could help you? 

The Princeton RISE Resource Guide, which provides an accessible framework for learning about systemic racism and actions individuals can take, lays out additional areas of consideration for being an effective ally and advocate.

3. Connect with community

Starting with the communities closest to you and joining forces with others can be a great way to have a lasting and powerful impact. Ask yourself: 

  • What other individuals/groups are already working on this issue? 
  • Who can you connect with to learn more? 

At Princeton undergraduate and graduate student groups, as well as staff-oriented Employee Resource Groups, focus on a multitude of issues. With the Pace Center, members of the campus community can get involved with local community groups or meet with its Community Partners-in-Residence to explore ideas for connection. 

“When I teach I ask two questions: What is your level of commitment? And, is this sustainable?,”  said Ida Malloy, a community partner-in-residence and coordinator of civic engagement at The Baldwin School. “It can be hard for people to acknowledge that people in need know what they need and when they need it, and it can be hard to stay committed to something over time, but it’s important to be realistic about what you are willing to do and what needs to be done.”

4. Look back to move forward

As current events unfold, taking a wider view to understand the historical and contemporary contexts surrounding an issue can reveal why something is happening now and what factors led to this moment. As a faculty mentor with Service Focus, Aaron Shkuda, a historian and project manager of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, encourages students to ask questions: “You see a building, or a landscape, and you might ask, ‘Well, what's the deal with that? How did it get to become that way?”

Earlier this summer, more than 25 members of the Princeton University community sought to answer questions about the community surrounding campus, and took part in a walking tour to learn more about the history of the African American experience in the town of Princeton. 

“It was important to get out of my own orange bubble,” said Micaela Ortiz, associate director of alumni engagement and experiential learning at the Center for Career Development. “I’ve done similar things on campus, like the invisible Princeton self-guided tours, but all of them have been oriented on-campus. It’s about working on my own blind spot. I want to understand more about the people and places in our community.”

5. Stop doomscrolling

The obsessive impulse to quickly flip through negative news can impact your mood and leave you feeling helpless. Instead, pay attention to where and how you are consuming news, and take steps to diversify your news consumption. 

“There’s an onslaught from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep,” said Joe Stephens, founding director of the Program in Journalism at Princeton. “It’s in newspapers, it’s on websites, apps, your phone, your watch. It’s everywhere, so much that we don’t even realize that we’re consuming media. Or, that the media is consuming us.”

To stop doomscrolling, Stephens recommends six strategies to be more in control of your media diet. Some tips include: 

  • Choose a time of day for consumption of carefully substantiated journalism.
  • Seek out substantial, trustworthy, verified information, alongside all the stuff that’s simply entertaining or silly.
  • Be a responsible media consumer and think about where the news on your social media feed comes from. “Ask yourself: Who produced it and why?” Stephens said. “And is someone, somewhere along the food chain working to verify the facts?”

6. Make your voice heard

“[Voting] is one of the biggest ways to really be able to have a more direct impact on your community and where you live,” said Ana Blanco, a junior from Miami and co-head fellow with Vote100 at Princeton. “Voting is the most basic thing that we can do to contribute to democracy and contribute to a more representative voice in government.” 

Sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS), Vote100 seeks to ensure Princetonians vote in every election. To be an educated voter, Blanco recommends looking beyond a candidate’s personal story and examining their specific record or stance on policy. Nonprofit or grassroots organizations championing particular issues can also be a good resource to understand how a candidate measures up, she says.

The Pace Center’s voting and active citizenship webpage provides information on voting in New Jersey, links to resources like Ballot Ready where you can check to see what’s on the ballot in elections across the U.S., and information on political student groups on campus and national organizations focused on voting and democracy.