The following is a guest contribution and reflects the views of the author only. For more information on how to submit an article to the Opinion section, click here.
For a school whose informal motto boasts of serving the nation and humanity, it’s odd that only 40 percent of senior leavers say they participated in community service activities during their four years at Princeton. Among incoming first-years, that number is much higher — three-quarters engaged in community service in high school. For students who participate in service activities, there is a strong support system for direct community service through the Pace Center for Civic Engagement and its programming. However, there is clearly a disconnect between the center and the students which facilitates a permeable pipeline into direct participation in community service. Some of the University’s initial attempts to address this issue have failed – we need a solution, such as a mandatory service requirement that recognizes the causes of this disconnect and specifically addresses them.
This year, the Pace Center organized a Civil Society Services Cohort to investigate barriers to services on campus. Through conversations with individuals and groups across campus, we have identified some of these barriers to deep civic engagement.
First, the detachment of the student body from the greater Mercer County community makes it difficult for individual students to match their skills to concrete needs. Additionally, the time constraints of a rigorous course schedule at Princeton make it difficult to commit to anything more than superficial, performative time. Students don’t want to give half-hearted effort and don’t think they can do more because of the demands of school work. In our interviews, students also reported that service organizations are not really making the difference they claim to be making. The students show up to club meetings every week with high hopes, only to finish another semester feeling little like they’ve contributed to the Princeton community.
The direct service environment at Princeton lacks both the sustainable infrastructure and long-term student engagement necessary to thrive. To address this, we can start by strengthening the Engaged Community Scholarship Programs (ProCES), which support a set of service-oriented courses. ProCES is an excellent conceptual model for students to integrate the service into their college experience here at Princeton. However, only a select subset of ProCES courses are led by a professor who has deep ties to the community and an interest in integrating direct service into course materials. As a result, these courses often differ in their level of incorporation of direct service into the course curriculum, with some faculty completely neglecting direct service except for a brief mention at the beginning of the course, and others incorporating weekly direct service assignments into as part of their program. the basic curriculum of the course.
If the University truly hopes to make civic engagement a central part of life at Princeton, attention must be placed on improving the quality of available service opportunities before increasing the quantity of those opportunities. While it’s tempting to direct Princeton’s resources toward new initiatives in the hope that a greater variety of clubs and organizations will attract more students, these students are more likely to engage with a sustained service during their career at Princeton if they can choose to participate in less, better developed programs where they truly feel they are making a difference.
Despite the flaws that exist in the service landscape at Princeton, many students are still able to meaningfully integrate direct service into their time on campus. Some students achieve this by volunteering as paramedics or tutoring students. A common feature among the most successful direct service models at Princeton, however, is the large and sustained time commitment they require.
A successful systematic solution to the direct service deficit at Princeton should first recognize both the considerable time required of individuals to form meaningful service experiences and the lack of free time available to most Princeton students, and then find a means of bridging the gap between these two conditions. A mandatory service requirement would do just that, building time for direct service into the time students are already spending in class.
However, before making service-learning mandatory, it must be improved. As ProCES and service-learning opportunities expand across departments, it’s not enough to stick labels on any course and briefly discuss the program’s pro-social applications at the end of the semester. Instead, the University should begin by investing in ProCES courses and their instructors to ensure consistent engagement with at least one community partner throughout the semester. By building consistent and strong pathways to community service in programs, we can create a culture that goes beyond lip service and truly embodies our informal motto.
This guest contribution was written by Jalen Travis, Zoe Evans, Shakhnoza Salimjonova, and Isabel Schoeman on behalf of the Civil Society Service Focus Cohort 2021-2022. You can reach them at [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected], respectively.