The Writing Seminar lets first-years focus specifically on their writing skills in small, interdisciplinary classes of twelve students max. From specialized writing instructors, students “build a solid foundation for their later work at Princeton” by “[learning] to pose interesting questions, structure complex ideas, and make original claims that engage with a variety of sources and contribute to ongoing academic debates,” according to the school. Students also learn the essential academic practice of peer review through small group and individual discussions with their professor and by providing feedback on one another’s work. The class also provides students with an overview of the “important differences in disciplinary practices and approaches,” so that they can write to a variety of audiences succeed in any academic field. Each writing seminar is organized around a single topics that gives purpose and direction to the semester’s efforts. There are also a wide range of selections, so students are sure to find something that compels them among titles like “Living with Animals,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Mitigating Climate Change,” and “Illusions, Delusions, and Neuroscience.”
The diversity of these seminars is clear from the work students produce. In the second half of the class, students embark on an ambitious research project. In the following semester, a cadre of distinguished freshmen writers are selected to present their scholarly research at the Quin Morton ‘36 Freshman Research Conference. The spring 2015 roster features presentations that mix pop-culture with more traditional forms of analysis, like one called, “You Kill or You Die: An Examination of the Decision-making Framework in The Walking Dead,” and others examine the different cultural meanings of the hijab or the state of India’s pharmaceutical industry. Through “ten-minute presentations of their work in small panels, followed by question-and-answer sessions,” these students get a sense of what it would be like to present scholarly research at a professional or academic conference, which many of them, in the course of their academic careers, will do. That first conference presentation can be truly nerve wracking. But practice and experience in front of a crowd definitely helps, especially if that crowd is full of your friends and classmates. Programs like this are one of the reasons Princeton undergrads tells us, “I love the focus on undergraduates” and the “friendly people.”
Before they set their foot in the door, a select group of incoming freshmen are whisked away to Bolivia, China, Brazil, India, or Senegal for a tuition-free, nine-month community service mission that is sure to widen their perspective as well as to introduce them to Princeton’s unofficial motto, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations.” And, let’s be honest: High-achievers have been worked to the bone throughout their high school careers. The ability to defer enrollment for a year through the Bridge Program offers recent high school grads a well-deserved break and a chance to see the world and try something new. Through service, students can nurture some of their underutilized talents or discover new ones.
Bridge Year participants are called Bridge Year Volunteers, and they work with organizations that provide social services, like NGOs, schools or clinics. While abroad, Bridge volunteers study a foreign language through immersion and intensive language classes, develop an appreciation for another culture by attending or participating in cultural events, and gain insights into the broader international world through community service work. In the past, students have volunteered with organizations that work to prevent human trafficking in India and provide services to survivors; they have investigated the Daoist pillar of laguna—or “ecstatic perception”—in China; and they write regular updates about their experiences that are posted on the Princeton University website. These updates, which read like narrative essays, are dotted with images of farmers swinging pick-axes in a field beneath Peruvian mountain, recordings of the haunting call to prayer in Senegal, and the fine grain details of their day-to-day lives, like arriving at work with sixty-six bananas for the sixty-six people that the organization had just recovered from slavery. Since its inception in 2009, nearly 160 students have participated, and during the 2015-16 school year the university expects to enroll thirty-five in the Bridge Year Program. These students come back from their work abroad reinvigorated, brimming with insights that will shape their work in college and contribute to the wealth of knowledge and experience on campus.
Princeton encourages students to think about summer research the moment they set foot in the door, and even offers a number of programs that are exclusively available to freshmen and sophomores. With so many research opportunities available, it is easy for Princeton to optimize some of its programs to specifically meet the needs and skills of novice researchers. In the end, this improves the experience for the freshmen while also making Princeton junior and senior researchers more effective. Options like the Summer Programming Experience “offers novice programmers an opportunity to gain experience by working on a creative and substantive programming project” with the help of a faculty member or graduate student. The program is specifically billed for students who were totally new to programming before taking an introductory course in their freshmen or sophomore years. Students are provided with living accommodations on campus and given a stipend to cover living expenses so that they can devote themselves to a project full-time for six weeks during the summer. Student researchers usually work together in pairs, and their work has covered everything from 3D computer graphics, to computational biology.
Princeton University alumni hold the highest offices, and have made tremendous contributions to the overall store of human knowledge. The Supreme Court currently seats three alumni: Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor. The White House has seen three Princeton alumni, in the forms of James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, and Michelle Obama. Princeton alumni also find themselves in the highest ranks of the business community, like Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, or Eric Schmidt, executive chairman at Google, and Meg Whitman, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Other well-known alumni include filmmaker Ethan Cohen, Teach for America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp, and The New Yorker Editor David Remnick. The extensive and well-connected Princeton alumni are also willing to give back and help current students with internships and job opportunities. As one student tells us, “Princeton is a place that prepares you for anything and everything, providing you with a strong network every step of the way.” According to the university, more than 5,200 alumni volunteer advice and assistance through the Alumni Career Network—which is about one person for every current undergraduate student. The alumni network’s global presence means that assistance is available anywhere in the world.