Princeton University seniors Austin Davis and Ella Gantman are the recipients of the 2023 Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, the highest general distinction conferred on an undergraduate. They will be recognized at Alumni Day on campus Saturday, Feb. 25.
The Pyne Honor Prize, established in 1921, is awarded to the senior who has most clearly manifested excellent scholarship, strength of character and effective leadership. Previous recipients include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and the late Princeton President Emeritus Robert F. Goheen.
Davis is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a history major and is pursuing a certificate in urban studies.
Davis has been described by faculty as an exceptional student with a true passion for history and as an advocate for his fellow undergraduates through his work with the Undergraduate Student Government and the Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity. He is the first in his family to attend college.
“Austin Davis is a remarkable young man who inspires us,” Professor of History and Associate Chair Margot Canaday wrote in a letter of recommendation on behalf of the department. “He also personifies what we love most about our own discipline: a combination of intellectual rigor and deep humanity. Austin embodies these traits and truly exemplifies the qualities the Pyne Prize was established to recognize.”
Professor of History Alison Isenberg said: “Austin is an exceptional candidate for the Pyne Prize, for his outstanding academic abilities, dedication to the craft of history, and community-engaged work, but perhaps mostly for his generous spirit helping other students succeed.”
“Speechless” is how Davis described his reaction upon learning he won the Pyne Prize. He called the recognition a tremendous honor.
“The award means a lot to me not for what it symbolizes about me, but the amazing groups of people that have made my Princeton experience possible,” he said. “My time at Princeton would have been impossible without the kindness of friends, the generosity of the Emma Bloomberg Center, and the willingness of faculty and administrators to engage with me as a student. The award, thus, is the summation of both my contributions but also the time, care and attention showed to me by so many at Princeton.”
Davis is the recipient of the 2022 William Koren, Jr., Prize, awarded to students with the strongest junior record in history. He also received the department’s Lawrence Stone and Shelby Collum Davis Prize, which supported research in New Mexico last summer for his senior thesis on the Ramona Indian School in late 19th century Santa Fe.
“In working with Austin on his senior thesis, I particularly admire how he constantly rethinks and reevaluates his narrative based on new evidence,” said Isenberg, his thesis adviser. “Writing history, one starts from a partial, sketchy view of the past. Beginning there, Austin goes right to layering in the story as it shifts into shape. To me, that layering is key to the artistry of being a historian, as you also work around the pieces you will never know.”
Outside of the classroom, Davis also has made lasting contributions to undergraduate life.
Through the Emma Bloomberg Center, Davis worked to mentor and empower first-generation and lower-income (FLi) students as a community ambassador and virtual college adviser.
“Austin has given so much to both the FLi community and the wider Princeton one — an astounding amount, really. We need more people like him at Princeton. He is a brilliant and deeply empathetic human being, who also happens to be deeply dedicated to building an inclusive academic and social community at Princeton,” said Khristina Gonzalez, associate dean and the Bob Peck ’88 Director of the Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity.
Davis participated in Bloomberg Center’s Freshman Scholars Institute the summer before his first year and served as an FSI residential college adviser during subsequent summers.
“Throughout my time at Princeton, FSI has truly been there every step of the away,” Davis said. “It welcomed me to Princeton. It introduced me to so many amazing people. And every summer it offered me employment in its virtual iterations, allowing me to give back to a program that made Princeton a less daunting and more welcoming place.”
As academics chair of the Undergraduate Student Government, Davis also worked with the Office of the Dean of the College (ODOC) to produce the annual Academic Expo, which showcases all of Princeton’s departments and academic units for new students, and collaborated with ODOC in the University’s effort to establish minors at Princeton.
According to Associate Dean Rebekah Peeples, Davis shared equally in the work, representing student interests, listening to faculty concerns at town halls, and assisting with the proposal’s refinement. Peeples said his work was pivotal to the proposal’s ultimate success and that the minors program will have “a greater influence on Princeton undergraduates than just about any other curricular change in the past 30 years.”
In addition to service on University committees, including the Committee on the Course of Study and the Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid, Davis has served as a peer academic adviser in Forbes College since 2020. He currently is a research assistant for the Princeton University Library’s Department of Special Collections.
Outside of Princeton, Davis interned at the New-York Historical Society, was a curatorial fellow at Martha’s Vineyard Museum and was a summer fellow at the Yleana Leadership Foundation.
After graduation, Davis said he hopes to pursue a career in public history, whether that be at a museum, an archive or elsewhere.
“Overall, I would simply like to contribute to our collective understanding of the past,” he said.
Gantman, from Washington D.C., is majoring in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and pursuing a certificate in Spanish language and culture. She is a four-year varsity athlete, playing goalie on the women’s soccer team.
Gantman is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and is the 2022 James D. Zirin ‘61 and Marlene Hess Scholar in the Nation’s Service. After graduation, she will pursue a master’s in public affairs at SPIA through the Scholar in the Nation’s Service Initiative (SINSI).
“I am deeply honored to have been selected for this prize,” Gantman said, adding that she was initially shocked upon learning of the award. “I am a proud product of the D.C. Public Schools system, and this level of recognition from an institution like Princeton was never on my to-do list.”
Gantman said receiving the Pyne Prize also has inspired reflection. “I was born in a rural rice town in China and I was orphaned by the time I was a few days old. Most of the children from my orphanage will never step onto a college campus. This prize is a reminder of where I come from, where I am and an encouragement to continue to serve my communities,” she said.
She expressed gratitude for her professors, mentors, coaches, friends and family who encouraged her to push herself and gave her the tools and opportunities to succeed at Princeton.
Professor Udi Ofer said Gantman “truly embodies the values of the Pyne Prize.”
“Ella has been one of the most impressive, if not the most impressive, student that I have taught,” said Ofer, the John L. Weinberg/Goldman Sachs and Co. Visiting Professor, a SPIA lecturer and Gantman’s senior thesis adviser. “She is smart and innovative, passionate about helping others, is a critical thinker, and has always excelled in whatever she has had before her.”
Gantman’s time at Princeton has been focused on academic and service work related to voting rights and access. She co-founded the Poll Hero Project, a non-partisan effort that mobilized more than 37,000 young people to volunteer as poll workers during the 2020 election. She also served as the lead athletics fellow for the Vote100 program, spearheading voting initiatives for nearly 1,000 student-athletes.
Her senior thesis analyzes how people who are legally eligible to vote while housed in New Jersey jails are not able to due to poor voting infrastructures. “My county-by-county analysis … will provide policy recommendations to pave a route forward, uplifting the voices of incarcerated people,” Gantman explained.
Ultimately, Gantman said she hopes to pursue a legal career that will help “reimagine the carceral system,” with an emphasis on racial and economic justice.
“Ella not only thinks critically about improving the communities that she’s a part of to be more inclusive and engaged, but follows through and creates that change,” said Claire Pinciaro, assistant dean for student life in Yeh College.
Her passion for improving communities also extends to the athletic field. Gantman founded and chaired the women’s soccer team’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee. Head Coach Sean Driscoll said Gantman has been a strong moral compass, support system and empathetic leader for her fellow student-athletes. “Ella’s efforts and talent align with the excellence this University symbolizes and demands. She is the best possible representative of our program,” he said.
Off campus, Gantman has pursued a number of service internships and opportunities. Last summer, she interned at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and hopes to continue work there as a SINSI fellow after earning her master's in public affairs. She also has experience as an investigative intern for the federal public defender’s office for the District of Columbia; a legislative intern in the office of U.S. Rep. Ami Bera of California; and an intern at the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.
Her other extracurricular activities include serving a mentor for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, a TigerCall lead supervisor with the University’s Office of Annual Giving, a fellow at the Princeton Writing Center, and a member of the student organizations Asian Student Athletes of Princeton, Athlete Ally, Jewish Asians and Jewish Latinos. Gantman is a member of New College West.