Princeton Wintersession: An academic festival for all
Only during Princeton Wintersession can you juggle with the Trenton Circus Squad by morning, study the poetry of Emily Dickinson over lunch, and learn lessons in public service with Dallas Mayor and Princeton alumnus Eric Johnson to end your day.
Those were just three of the over 450 free workshops, classes and performances offered during the innovative winter break program aimed at discovering new passions, breaking out of comfort zones and cultivating community. More than 4,800 members of the University community registered for Wintersession events on and off campus Jan. 16-29, including trips to museums, theaters and historic sites in Trenton, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.
“I hope Wintersession gives anyone taking part permission to slow down and explore,” said Judy Jarvis, executive director for Wintersession and Campus Engagement. “Especially for our students, Wintersession offers a chance to try an activity or work on a skill that brings them joy or delight, to make new friends that endure after Wintersession ends, and to meet staff, faculty and other students they never would have encountered on campus otherwise.”
Undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, staff and faculty — including President Christopher L. Eisgruber, Dean of the College Jill Dolan and Vice President for Campus Life W. Rochelle Calhoun — were both teachers and students during Wintersession. The program also featured alumni and guest speakers, such as a keynote conversation with BAFTA and Emmy winner Michaela Coel.
“The great thing about Wintersession is that it provides a no-pressure, imaginative space where we can ask big questions, dream up some out-of-the-box solutions, and, who knows, maybe discover seeds that will germinate into bigger things,” Eisgruber wrote in his blog in advance of his Jan. 24 Wintersession course “Online Media and Civic Discourse.” During the workshop, undergraduate and graduate students engaged in conversation with Eisgruber and guest speakers about what all of us at Princeton, and across society, can do to achieve a healthy civic discourse in a rapidly changing information environment.
Eisgruber’s class was one of the many Wintersession highlights for Class of 2025 student Gil Joseph.
“Wintersession has become this platform that provides time, space, community and resources to people like me, looking to be inspired as a new year and a new semester begin,” Joseph said. “The different events helped me reconnect with the joy of learning without stress and pressure. They also have helped me gain the freedom to explore and make mistakes and not have to ‘be good’ at something to find it enjoyable. Wintersession is also a great space to build community!”
Elliot Ji, a graduate student in politics, said one of his favorite Wintersession events was Dolan’s session on “How to Write Emails that Sound Human.”
Dolan shared her tips for crafting emails that convey information efficiently and effectively, while also sounding warm and personal. Dolan is the Annan Professor in English, a professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts and, as dean of the college, a frequent sender of important University memos emailed to thousands of students and faculty.
“I found it illuminating because it showed me how an eminent writer would consider the tone and style of written communication depending on the context and the audience,” Ji said of Dolan. “I now pay attention to maintaining an active tone and use simple language when I write my emails.”
This year also marked the first fully in-person Wintersession, following virtual and hybrid sessions the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Offerings for 2023 ranged from bachata dancing and blacksmithing to chamber music, dog training, kosher cooking, restorative justice and off-campus retreats. Below are snapshots from a few of the many Wintersession programs.
'Beyond the Resume with Michaela Coel'
Wintersession's third annual Beyond the Resume event featured a conversation between actress, screenwriter, director, producer and poet Michaela Coel and Class of 2023 member Mutemwa Masheke. The Jan. 28 event was co-sponsored by the Society for African Internationals at Princeton and the Office of Campus Engagement.
Coel is the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Limited or Anthology Series.
Masheke asked Coel about her accomplishments, activism and how she stays true to herself after gaining international fame for her award-winning comedy-drama, “I May Destroy You,” and roles in movies like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
“I like to reach as many people as I can while telling stories that seem as authentic to my voice as much as possible,” Coel said, adding that she finds television the best medium for her writing. “For me, [television] is a way I can tell a story. It doesn’t require anyone to dress up for the theater or pay for a cinema ticket. It’s a really easy way to reach people.”
Masheke also asked Coel about the concept of imposter syndrome and how she navigates different spaces.
“Imposter syndrome. I have it. I am it. But I see it like it’s a superpower,” Coel said. “There are lots of benefits to it. It means I never feel like I entirely belong in any space. It means I have to actively find out where I am. I don’t take my environment for granted wherever I go. “
Coel’s parents are from Ghana, and she grew up in London. Before speaking at Princeton, Coel said she had spent the last month in the Ghanaian village where her parents were born.
During a question-and-answer session with students in the Richardson Auditorium audience, Coel shared where she finds inspiration and how she carves out time for writing given her busy schedule.
“I’m really in love with the process of making my work,” she said. “I love it so much. I don’t get that feeling anywhere else.”
'Life and Leadership with Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson'
What is it like behind the scenes for politicians seeking to enact change? How can your time at Princeton prepare you for a rewarding life of public service? Those were some of the questions that Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson answered in a Jan. 19 conversation with School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) Dean Amaney Jamal.
Johnson earned his master’s in public affairs from SPIA in 2003 and became the 60th mayor of Dallas in 2019, after serving as a member of the Texas House of Representatives. Johnson said his career in government has been guided by principles he learned at SPIA.
“I really approach solving these political questions from the standpoint of a policy analyst: assessing the options and trying to maximize the public benefit,” he said.
Johnson said he loved his time at Princeton and met important faculty mentors and lifelong friends on campus.
“This place holds a really special place in my heart,” he told the SPIA undergraduate and graduate students in the audience. “There really were no barriers between us as students and the professors and the administrators. … It’s hard to understand how special this place is until you are gone.”
Johnson also reflected on growing up in the city he now leads and his experience as a first-generation college student. “I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood,” he recalled. “Our goals were about surviving. … I wanted to go to college. I wanted to get a good job.”
As the evening ended, Johnson was asked about the significance of being Dallas’ second Black mayor.
“I’m a product of our city’s Black community. I am proud of that fact,” Johnson said. “Kids who grow up in the neighborhood that I grew up in can look at me and see it can be done. I want those kids to think it is not a big deal to have a mayor of color. It just is.”
The conversation was co-sponsored by SPIA and the Office of Campus Engagement.
'Unexpected Conversations featuring Poet Joshua Bennett and Imam Khalil Abdullah'
Faith, fatherhood and fashion were among the range of topics discussed by Dartmouth Professor of English and Creative Writing Joshua Bennett and Imam Khalil Abdullah during a Jan. 26 talk as part of Wintersession’s “Unexpected Conversation” series.
Bennett, an award-winning author of three books of poetry and literary criticism, earned his Ph.D. in English from Princeton. Abdullah is Princeton’s assistant dean of Muslim Life. The two men formed a friendship when Abdullah previously worked at Dartmouth.
“I got a chance to see [Bennett] connect in very deep and personal and profound ways with the students, which reminded me of the work that I try to do. I like to say that I’m poetic in some ways,’” Abdullah said with a slight laugh.
The two men then engaged in an open dialogue, comfortable to see where the conversation led. Bennett, who has a 2-year-old son, asked advice from Abdullah, the father of four adult sons.
“You can read all the manuals, and get all the advice, but you really don’t know what you are doing when you first become a parent,” Abdullah said. ‘What has helped me more than anything … is that my father loved me unconditionally. If I had not received the loving, gentle, caring hands from my father I would not have known how to love my four Black sons in the way that I do now. We are deeply connected. When I got the job at Princeton, they reached out and said they were proud of me.”
Students seated in the Robertson Hall auditorium also had a chance to ask the speakers for advice. Class of 2024 member Aisha Chebbi, who hopes to become a doctor, asked if they think creativity is an innate quality or a skill that can be cultivated.
“Don’t worry about what other people think. That is one of the biggest invitations to creativity,” Abdullah said.
Bennett said everyone can be creative, no matter what their field. One of his career highlights was teaching an undergraduate — who later went on to medical school — who had a “transformative moment” around ideas of race, class and disability.
“That is why I teach. Not to make a generation of poets,” Bennett said. “Most of my students are future doctors, computer scientists, policymakers. I am grateful for the idea that maybe they have one little poem in their pocket and maybe they will share it with a patient or that poem will make its way into an algorithm someday.”
The event was co-sponsored by the Office of Religious Life, the Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, and the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life.
'The (Queer?) Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson'
While the poetry of Emily Dickinson is well known, the poet herself remains a compelling and enigmatic figure nearly 140 years after her death, argues Gina Holland, the undergraduate program manager for the Department of Economics and facilitator of the class examining Dickinson’s life.
Over three hours, undergraduates, graduate students and staff learned about Dickinson’s 19th century life in Amherst, Massachusetts, explored the content and imagery of some of her poems, examined the ongoing speculation about her love life, and learned about the series of events that led the posthumous publication of her poems.
Holland noted that Dickinson published just a handful of poems during her life. It was only after her death that her prolific work was discovered and published.
“She was never understood in her time,” Holland said. “You may think she was morose and sad and then you read her poems and realize she is someone who is just so tongue in cheek and so witty.”
Holland said she would describe Dickinson’s poetry and life as queer in a broad sense of the word. Queer as in sexual orientation, subverting societal norms and gender roles, subverting religious beliefs and expectations, and the poetry itself, such as her idiosyncratic punctuation, capitalization and style.
“She didn’t conform to any of the poetic structures of the time,” Holland said. “She did whatever the heck she wanted because she was just writing by herself in her room. How lovely.”
Class of 2026 member Avery Danae Williams, a writer and poet as well, said she had not studied Dickinson much before Wintersession.
“Before the workshop, I never really paid attention to Dickinson’s frequent use of nature in her poems to possibly hint at her sexuality. I always took this type of imagery literally,” Williams said. “I also didn’t realize how ahead of her time she is in terms of subverting religion and gender constructs.”
Overall, Williams said Wintersession allowed her a new way to learn and connect with campus before the spring semester began this week.
“Wintersession has really afforded me the time to be present with my friends, without worrying about the stress of classes or looming deadlines,” she said. “It has allowed me to slow down and take in wonders we often take for granted like the University’s beautiful architecture.”