“It’s clear the Princeton University community is embracing Wintersession as a time to use their hands and minds in different ways than they might during the school year,” says Judy Jarvis, executive director for the Office of Campus Engagement.
Now in its fourth year, the two-week winter break program focuses on the joy of learning, exploring new subjects and fostering connections. Wintersession allows members of the University community to share their academic, professional and personal passions with others, and to take on the roles of both teachers and students.
Wintersession continues to grow. The 2024 program ran Jan. 15 to 28 and included 368 daytime workshops, 66 off-campus trips and 32 evening events. More than 5,100 undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, staff and faculty registered for at least one Wintersession offering, the highest total participation so far.
“Off-campus trips and hands-on experiences — whether it’s computer coding, knitting or enjoying the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center — remain the two most popular type of offerings, as they have been in previous years,” Jarvis said. “A number of students approached our team to tell us how much fun they were having, how delighted they were by the variety of offerings, and that they were meeting new people. It’s very exciting when, in real time, people on campus tell us how meaningful Wintersession is to them.”
Below are vignettes from just a few of the hundreds of Wintersession 2024 events.
'Be A Cancer Biologist'
In “Be a Cancer Biologist with the Ludwig Princeton Branch” students and staff donned lab coats and gloves for an afternoon of prepping chromosomes from cancer cells to observe them under microscopes.
The prep involved loosening up and spreading out the chromosomes by pipetting a liquid suspension onto a microscope slide from a height of several inches – “so when it goes onto the slide, it goes splat,” said session leader Sarah Mitchell, a staff scientist at the Ludwig Princeton Branch – then dipping the slide in a series of solutions. After that, they stained the chromosomes blue for viewing, led by Michael MacArthur, a Lewis Sigler scholar in the lab of Princeton Branch Director Joshua Rabinowitz.
The instructors’ informed and collegial Wintersession presentation put the class at ease, and the lab buzzed with participants’ happy encouragements to each other as the experiment progressed.
Danielle Samake, a senior majoring in sociology, said she signed up for the session to give her brain a quick STEM refresher and revive some lapsed lab skills. Jessenia Yupangui, a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, came to satisfy her curiosity about cancer research in a low-key setting. “If you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world,” she said. A staff member with a family member who is being treated for cancer hoped to come away with a new perspective on the disease.
During a lull in the action, as the group waited for their slides to dry, a Ludwig representative gave a short introduction to the Ludwig Princeton Summer Internship Program in cancer research, open to rising sophomores and juniors at Princeton and Rutgers University.
'Investigating the Archive'
From an 1864 portrait of Sojourner Truth to typed drafts of the 1970 novel “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, Princeton University Library’s Department of Special Collections includes a robust archive relating to Black diasporic and African American life.
The Wintersession workshop “Innovating the Archive from Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison” offered a special opportunity for the University community to study materials up close and discuss them with three Princeton experts. Many participants said it was their first visit to Special Collections.
Before entering the classroom in Firestone Library, undergraduates, graduate students and staff members stowed their belongings in lockers and washed their hands to help ensure preservation of the historical items. They then gathered around tables of manuscripts, books, broadsides, maps and personal letters from the 18th through 20th centuries.
“The benefit of this session is that you have the opportunity to engage with the materials right before you,” said Dean of the Faculty Gene Jarrett, the William S. Tod Professor of English and scholar of African American literary history. “Each text that you read is a portal to a particular literary, cultural and historical world.”
Autumn Womack, associate professor of African American studies and English, encouraged the group to examine the items with such questions in mind: What exactly is a Black archive? What does it mean to do archival research? How can archival materials give us new information about the past and also the present?
“There is much to understand about a book before you even get to the text — look at the cover, the author’s note, the publishers’ information,” said Rene Boatman, technical administrative assistant in Special Collections.
Each facilitator also shared their personal connection to items on display from the Toni Morrison Papers, which were the focus of the 2023 exhibit “Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory” curated by Womack. Boatman, the late Morrison’s assistant, was a curatorial co-contributor for the exhibit.
Jarrett, Class of 1997, studied with the Nobel laureate while an undergraduate. “My time with Professor Morrison was transformative,” he said. “That was the true moment in which I was maturing as a literary thinker and plumbing into the archive.”
After a morning of hands-on exploration, the group moved to the Tiger Tea Room to discuss what they learned over lunch.
Rias Reed, a master’s student in the School of Public and International Affairs, said Wintersession is a unique chance to try new things. “Last night, I played broomball in Baker Rink and today I studied literary artifacts at the library.”
'Beyond the Resume'
Speaking to a packed house in Richardson Auditorium, Nick Offerman went "beyond his resume" as an actor and comedian during Wintersession’s annual keynote conversation.
Known for playing the deadpan Ron Swanson in the sitcom “Parks and Rec,” Offerman won his first Emmy last month for a role in the dramatic series “The Last of Us,” which he noted was created by Class of 1992 graduate Craig Mazin. Offerman is also the author of New York Times bestsellers on topics ranging from his love of the outdoors to great Americans in history.
Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Mell Thompson, who moderated the conversation, said Offerman’s many passions embody the ethos of Wintersession.
“You are so well known for your acting career, but what many people may not be aware of is your incredible woodworking career,” Thompson said.
“The good thing is I grew up in this very self-sufficient family,” Offerman said. “I could make things out of wood, I could sew clothing. We knew how to take care of ourselves.”
While studying theater at the University of Illinois, Offerman joked, “it became quickly clear that I wouldn’t get cast as an actor,” so he started working in the scenery shop. When he and friends started their own theater company in Chicago after graduation, he worked as much behind the curtain as he did in front.
“I just love making things,” Offerman said. “I always recommend to any audience, it doesn’t have to be woodworking, but I think there is something magical about the human ability to connect our consciousness and our coordination with our hands.”
Building things by hand also makes him more mindful of questions like “who grew my food” and “who made my clothes," he said. “It makes my life so much more fulfilling.”
Later, Offerman took questions from students in the audience. Class of 2026 member Alexander Khoretonenko said that as a college student it was inspiring to learn about Offerman’s own career journey. “It’s really nice to get a viewpoint [that] you don’t have to be successful immediately. You can take time to figure yourself out.”
And Much More
In addition, Wintersession offered an abundance of other learning and community-building opportunities, such as “Endowment 101” led by PRINCO President Andrew Golden and Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Jim Matteo; afternoon tea and conversation with Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun; and a two-day training on conflict resolution and reconciliation led by the Rose Castle Foundation, which runs a similar program for undergraduates during fall break from the foundation’s base in Cumbria, England.
And, for the first time, Cannon Green was covered in snow for the Wintersession Kick-off Festival, which featured ice sculptures, campfires and food trucks.
“We lit up the buildings all around Cannon Green in Wintersession's colors of pink and blue," Jarvis said. "Many people remarked that the unexpected color plus the snow on the ground truly felt like a campus transformed and Wintersession-ized."
Becky Batcha and Maddy Pryor contributed to this story.