Several weeks ago, a number of students received an email about a group of Bronx middle school students who wanted to visit Princeton. The idea was simple: at-risk students might be motivated to stay in school if they could see the fruits of years of academic labor. Unfortunately, only a few days before the slated visit, we received another email. The students could no longer visit Princeton because of budget cuts. At this announcement, the school threw up its hands in dismay and declared that there was nothing to be done to help these kids.
In 2002, the Robertson Foundation sued the Woodrow Wilson School for misallocation of funds. The family members involved felt that the direction that the Wilson School had taken was deplorable, and that few students were entering public service. In short, they did not feel that the program was contributing to the Nation’s Service.
In February, Princeton University announced a program to institute a formal gap year for admitted students. The point of the program, according to Shirley Tilghman, was to send kids abroad to participate in social service programs and gain a more nuanced international perspective. There was, of course, no mention of a possibility for taking a gap year to perform service in the United States, even though some students have never visited parts of the country and therefore would gain a nuanced perspective from spending time in another region or state.
Institutionally, our university seems more than a bit removed from the first part of its motto—“Princeton in the Nation’s Service and in the Service of all Nations.” This is primarily disturbing because of the extreme poverty that surrounds the oasis of Princeton Borough. While touting its financial aid program, Princeton has no formalized program to reach out to troubled or impoverished youth in the tri-state area. Despite its rhetoric, few graduates of its public policy school actually pursue a career in the domestic public sector. As the university speaks of understanding and diversity, it fails to acknowledge the serious disconnect between many of its students and the rest of America.
Of course, many student groups on campus are devoted to community service and outreach to local charities and programs for development elsewhere. Students take annual trips to Louisiana to build homes in New Orleans. Other groups provide tutoring to local high school students, helping them with homework or SAT prep. Still others focus on teaching English to immigrants. PICS and Project 55 provide internships and fellowships for undergraduates across the nation. These actions are commendable and do make a great difference. However, a more direct role for the university than funding these groups is entirely necessary.
Princeton—or America, more generally—cannot serve as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world without looking inwards first and addressing the social ills of this society. Otherwise, any message of change abroad smacks unequivocally of hypocrisy. The solutions to some of the problems outlined above seem easy enough. The University could spend a small portion of its extensive endowment to provide a day for at- risk middle school students from the tri-state area to visit the campus and learn more about college and the application process. Greater publicity of domestic internship/fellowship programs and a greater emphasis on domestic policy courses may encourage a higher rate of participation amongst Princeton grads in the public sector. Instituting an option for a gap year that combines a semester abroad and a semester in the United States would allow students to form a truly nuanced perspective before coming to Princeton. More logically, this option would divide the gap year in to two segments, akin to the two semesters of a school year abroad.
These changes do not seem unrealistic or impossible. Rather, they are small changes that are, in large part, entirely symbolic. When engagement with the local community comes from the administration as well as from the student body, Princeton University sends a powerful message about its concern for and commitment to bettering the future of America. As a suburban school, built in an oasis of privilege in a desert of poverty, Princeton owes this gesture to its neighbors. Furthermore, as a university that prides itself on “starting new initiatives” (read: grade deflation), perhaps it is time for Princeton to focus its innovative efforts on a more meaningful and worthy case. The administration, and not simply the student body, must ensure that the ivory tower doesn’t embrace the sexier plight of other countries at the expense of the great need all around it: in Trenton, Camden, Newark, Philadelphia, New York. By reaching out to the local community, the university may finally be in the nation’s service.