May 13, 2022

More than 250 Princeton University students are about to embark on summer service internship experiences with John C. Bogle '51 Fellows in Civic Service, Princeton Internships in Civic Service (PICS), Princeton RISE (Recognizing Inequities and Standing for Equality), Projects for Peace and Service Focus. On April 25, students, staff and alumni gathered to celebrate their upcoming internships, build community, and reflect on what they hope to do and learn. 

As part of this celebration, Rachel Kasdin a Princeton alumna from the class of 2020 who engaged in an array of service experiences with the Pace Center as an undergraduate student, shared a powerful reflection to help this year's summer service interns prepare for what's ahead. The following are her remarks, edited for clarity. 

It is such a pleasure to be here with all of you today and to celebrate the beginning of what I’m sure will be a memorable and rewarding experience for all of you. 

I want to start by saying congratulations. I think it takes real courage to apply for opportunities like these – from first believing in yourself throughout the application process, to the vulnerability that successful written applications require, and finally your decision to take on this new challenge. Coming out of two years of the uncertainty, fear, and real hardship of the pandemic, you have each decided to embrace a different kind of uncertainty – the kind that is, ultimately, exciting and that comes with the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to step outside of your comfort zone. You may not know what to expect from your internship this summer, but you have decided to do it anyway. Let us honor that today, and let me say once again, congratulations. 

What is clear to me is that you will all be approaching your engagement with service this summer from many different perspectives. Your summer experiences will be unique to your specific project or internship, to you, and to your environment. I hope to have the chance to hear from you in just a few months to hear about what you learned, what you offered, and, inevitably, what you struggled with. In the meantime, I want to offer all of you some questions that may help frame your exploration of service this summer and that are based on reflections from my own experience with a service-related internship between my junior and senior years at Princeton. 

Princeton University students sitting at round tables listening to a speaker.

Summer service interns with the Pace Center for Civic Engagement listen to remarks at the Summer Service Internships Celebration on April 25. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Where are you?

This question may sound simple, but I will suggest that it is the most important of the three I will pose. Where are you? You know, of course, where you will be geographically. That is important. But I think the question should be pushed further than that, and I encourage you to become deeply immersed in place this summer. 

During the summer of 2019, I spent eight weeks with New York City Health and Hospital’s Office of Population Health. Having grown up in New York City, I was somewhat disappointed to be going back “home” that summer rather than having what I believed would be an adventure. What I realize now, looking back on that experience, is that through my position with New York City Health and Hospitals, I developed entirely new dimensions of my relationship to the city I had known all my life. I visited public hospitals in areas of Queens and Brooklyn I had never been to while supporting the development of a community health worker program and spent hours every week in Bellevue Hospital’s primary care clinics for homeless patients, refugees, and asylum seekers. I got to know the city, geographically and socio-politically, in ways that I had not before. This internship was particularly well-suited to helping me become deeply immersed in place, but I found that this exploration extended beyond my internship responsibilities as well. 

I encourage you to explore the local history of where you will be based this summer by finding books and articles and going to local museums. I also encourage you to find events happening near your internship or project’s location, such as performances, community gatherings, or religious rituals. To whatever extent possible, I encourage you to be an active participant in and a student of the environment around you. 

Whether you are spending the summer where you lived most of your life or somewhere you have never been before, this type of deep engagement with place will enrich your understanding of the service work you are doing, giving you invaluable context for what your community partners do. It will allow you to devote your time and energy to your role this summer in ways that are better informed and more effective. It will also allow you to get more out of your project or internship, as you gain a deeper understanding of the projects themselves. 

Where are you? Ask it of yourself early and often. It will set you up to more effectively answer my second question. 

Princeton University senior Ritvik Agnihotri talks with two people at a table.

Princeton senior Ritvik Agnihotri, center, talks with folks at his table at the 2022 Summer Service Internships Celebration. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Who are you?

Specifically, what do you have to offer? What are the skills you have that originally helped you stand out as an applicant and how can you bring those into the work you are doing this summer? Most importantly, what are you not qualified to do? 

Some of these questions may seem like they have obvious answers. For example, I was decidedly not qualified to provide clinical care in my role with New York City Health and Hospitals. I might be pre-med, but not that kind of pre-med. Less obvious was whether I had the skills necessary to serve as a medical translator for Spanish-speaking patients given my working knowledge of the language. Those moments, where you find yourself in a gray area, are where you have no choice but to dig into this question. 

Ultimately, I decided that my Spanish was not up to the task and I did not want to find myself in the position of doing more harm than good. What I realized, through the process of being honest with myself and my colleagues, was that I did have skills that offered real value to the team. I already had a lot of experience doing qualitative research in health care settings and could, we realized, use this experience to help a group of providers start answering some questions about their clinic that they had been wishing for data on. While I did not have experience working as a community health worker or training them, I could use my experience teaching, mentoring, and designing curricula to support the community health worker trainer in developing the curriculum for the workshops she was planning to lead. I could also, perhaps less glamorously, use my writing skills to help revise, copy edit, and finalize the written documents involved. 

Who am I? I am someone who came into a space where I felt, initially, like I did not belong – both in the highly professional office space and the spaces of New York City’s public hospitals that I was previously unfamiliar with – who was learning to see my home of New York City in a way that I had never gotten to before. But I was also someone who did have real skills to offer and who, through trial and error, was able to identify them and find a place for myself through them. 

Now, who are you?

Isa Checa and Mariana Icaza Diaz

First-year students Isa Checa and Mariana Icaza Diaz write down reflections at the Summer Service Internships Celebration. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

What do you want?

This question sometimes gets overlooked as people embark on service projects, as folks are under the impression that they must only “give” and expect nothing in return. I encourage you, though, to pause. What do you want? What do you want out of the experience you’re going to have this summer and what do you want to learn?

I ask this not because I think your experience should be guided primarily or only by your own self-interest. I ask this, instead, to encourage you to remember that you are in a stage of your life when you still do have much to learn from others. We all do, really. You will, quite certainly, gain something from what you do this summer whether it be knowledge, perspective, concrete skills such as data analysis or writing grant proposals, or soft skills such as community-building and community organizing skills.  By identifying what you want out of the experience early on, while leaving yourself open to change, this will provide you with structure as you explore all that there is to learn. It will help you identify the place in projects you are part of where your existing skills intersect with the skills you hope to build and what your community partners have asked of you. 

By asking yourself what you want, you remind yourself that service is a collaborative effort, one that is about engaging deeply with others over a prolonged period of time, and one that requires humility of all of us as we accept and embrace what we do not yet know. More directly, by acknowledging that there is something you want from the experience or that there is something you can gain, you can avoid the belief that service is a one-directional act of giving, solving problems, and fixing things. 

During my summer internship, I think I knew that I wanted to learn how to use the qualitative sociological skills I had learned within the world of academia in ways that could applied to affecting change within health care systems. I also came to know that I wanted to learn how projects can be implemented effectively within bureaucratic government organizations and public hospitals. Finally, I wanted to learn how public hospital systems, or really anyone, could work towards the provision of more equitable healthcare. I found, throughout the summer, that I could do this by observing and by practicing. By identifying these goals, the team I worked with was able to help me find projects that were well within my skillset, such as interviewing patients and providers in the Bellevue primary care clinics, and that also sat at the edge of my skillset, by asking me, for example, to then turn that qualitative data into a presentation for the hospital administrators that advocated for the clinics’ continuation and expansion. It is with this honesty, this humility, and this collaboration that you can grow meaningfully from the projects you are about to embark on. 

So ask yourself, starting right now, what do you want? Who are you? Where are you?

These questions seem like simple ones, ones that you’ve known how to answer since you were much younger. If you really dig into them, though, you may come to agree that they are deceptively simple. I suspect that you will find them to be surprisingly rewarding to think about over the course of the summer. I hope they prove to be thought-provoking and can act as a guide. 

It’s impossible, of course, to predict how your own answers to these questions will play out, how your summer will unfold, and how your relationship to service may evolve, but what I think I do know is that you are all set up to have deeply fulfilling experiences. 

And, of course, I and everyone at the Pace Center are here if you need us. Don’t hesitate to reach out.