Two Views: Professor and Student Share What a Freshman Seminar Meant to Them

August 1st, 2010 / Development Com...

The Freshman Seminars program introduces first-year students to the challenges of studying complex subjects with a professor and a small group of peers. The Robert H. Rawson ’66 Freshman Seminar “Race, Class, and the Selective College Experience” examined evidence, controversies, and policy dilemmas associated with diversity in higher education. The class was taught by Professor of Sociology Thomas J. Espenshade *72; students included Ameer Elbuluk ’13.

The Professor's Perspective

This course continues to be one of my most rewarding. I’ve taught it four or five times, and this year the chemistry among the participants was especially good. We had a great mix of first-year students, 15 in all (seven women and eight men) of great diversity, including geographic, ethnic, socioeconomic, legacy/non-legacy, athlete/non-athlete, and public/private secondary school. They were some of the brightest and most engaging students I have encountered. I looked forward to each class, and, judging from their enthusiastic responses, the students did, too (no doubt my wife’s homemade cookies added to their enthusiasm).

The students were superb—completely candid and forthcoming. Class time was devoted to discussion of weekly readings, and each week a different student took responsibility for making up the questions and leading the discussion.

During the last week we conducted a mock admission process, which was the highlight of the course. The students created applications for four hypothetical applicants to “Prestige University,” composing essays and writing fictitious letters of recommendation. Then they divided into three subcommittees to rank the candidates. Finally, the subcommittees had to come together and reach consensus on which students to admit, wait-list, or reject. There were disparities in the rankings, and the students had to argue for their choices. If you had come into the class, you would have believed the candidates were actual people, the students made them so alive.

Students admitted to Princeton are incredibly talented and bright, but they don’t always have opportunities to show how far-ranging their talents are and how creative they can be. This class provides a broad playing field where they’re able to exercise their imaginations and powers of reflection.

They also come to Princeton with attitudes and stereotypes—they bring those to campus just as surely as they bring their backpacks and their iPods and their bicycles. In this seminar they learn how to handle challenges to their preconceptions, how to hear alternative viewpoints, reflect, and react. Sometimes they change their minds, and sometimes they don’t. That’s education at its best.

Thomas Espenshade, who earned his PhD in economics, has been a member of Princeton’s faculty for more than 20 years working on various aspects of social demography. His current teaching and research focus on inequality and diversity in higher education.

A Student's Experience

I already know that Professor Espenshade’s freshman seminar will be in the top five courses I will have taken here at Princeton. Throughout the semester we delved into weekly readings and had intellectual discussions and heated debates as we tried to learn the ins and outs of affirmative action, diversity at private universities, and how admission offices work. We had the unique experience of hearing both the current dean of admission, Janet Rapelye, and former dean Fred Hargadon speak about the admission process and the influential 2003 Supreme Court case that upheld the legality of affirmative action in higher education.

Besides learning about these critical issues, I learned how to engage in strong discussions with my classmates and was able to form a more mature understanding of my own thoughts. Princeton is a place that is supposed to foster the intellectual discussions this seminar provided. In this era of Obama, it is essential for a university of Princeton’s caliber to address pivotal social questions. Understanding such issues as closing the achievement gap is essential knowledge that does not just affect individuals; achieving strong diversity is essential to America’s workforce, its economy, and overcoming stereotypes.

This freshman seminar was very rewarding, and the lessons I learned from being in the class took me a big step in the right direction here at Princeton. The guidance provided by Professor Espenshade with respect to writing and discussion skills will help propel me forward as a college student and beyond. I left the class not as a student but as an informed individual, thankful for the memories and great experiences that will accompany me forever.

Ameer Elbuluk was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. His parents came to the United States from Sudan. A member of Rockefeller College, he is an undergraduate fellow at the Carl A. Fields Center and a member of the Black Student Union and the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students.