Action Oriented: Reflections on a Morning Spent Out of the Office

It sounded like a good idea when I signed up in June: join a group of first-year Princeton students for a morning in their Community Action (CA) Orientation experience.

That’s how I found myself at Princeton Nursery School instead of at my desk days before Opening Exercises, sleeves rolled up, and as much a newbie as the toddlers wailing while their parents waved goodbye. After a brief pep talk from the school's executive director, a dozen Class of 2020 members, their two CA leaders, and I fanned out to appointed tasks—some to help soothe tears, some to organize the supply closet, and some, including me, to weed the grounds.

Community Action 2016Left to right, Maria LoBiondo with Justin Hamilton '20, Andres Irribarra '20, and Sylvie Thode '20, cleaning up the gardens outside Princeton Nursery School. (Photo by Gwen McNamara, Pace Center for Civic Engagement)

On weeding detail, Justin Hamilton ’20, Sylvie Thode ’20, Andres Irribarra ’20, Karen Delgado ’19, and I try to root out our earliest memories of school. Too far back for the rest of us, but Irribarra recounts his terror when a preschool teacher playfully suggested his mates play dinosaurs and “eat” him. “I was sure that’s what they literally would do,” he said. The memory is intriguing enough that this potential chemical engineering major hopes to check out the psychology department’s Baby Lab for study. 

Digging In
During Orientation, all Princeton’s incoming students take part in small group experiences. Through outdoor activities, community engagement, or athletic practice, they get a taste of what it means to be a part of the University community. CA, organized by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, sent more than 525 students to service projects throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania that ranged from assisting homeless families, to stocking food banks, to running a back-to-school fair for elementary students. This year staff was invited to join for one of the five days; about 35 staffers like myself signed on.
 
Conversation about where we grew up and choosing CA comes easily as we dig, rake, and mow. Irribarra, Hamilton, and Thode tutored fellow high school students, so signing up for education-related service seemed natural. CA leader Delgado says service activities act as the flip side to her pre-med science courses. It’s satisfying to see the day lilies and bushes neatly emerge and get to know one another at the same time. 

Roots to Grow
Which is the point, of course—CA presents an opportunity to meet classmates from different places (Chile, El Salvador, Washington state, Maine, and New York City are a sampling from my small group) and mix doing good with making new friends. Opportunities to continue both—the Pace Center coordinates efforts across a broad spectrum that include projects on the environment and sustainability, health and human services, law and justice—can keep this good thing going.  

As we stuff four oversize garbage bags with pulled weeds, I sum up the morning’s lesson before heading back to my computer: CA helps plant Princeton’s ethic of service; Pace Center activities help keep it growing.   

To learn more about supporting service initiatives at Princeton, contact Laurie Russen, senior associate director, strategic priorities, at lrussen@princeton.edu or 609.258.5374.