Being an Active Citizen with Breakout Princeton

Wednesday, Mar 10, 2021
by Oyin Sangoyomi '23, Student Correspondent

In the past, Breakout Princeton, a program hosted by the John H. Pace Jr ‘39 Center for Civic Engagement, has sent out groups of about 15 students to different cities to immerse themselves in service and civic engagement issues there for one week. This past winter break, although COVID-19 has inhibited travel, Breakout Princeton remained committed to helping participants expand their knowledge of social issues.

Breakout Princeton put forward Cracks in the System: Healthcare & COVID-19, a week-long virtual Wintersession event exploring the effects that the pandemic has had on healthcare in the United States across different communities. It involved speakers, discussions of media, and activities that prepared participants to engage in healthcare-related service opportunities in their own communities. Afterwards, students participated in an Active Citizenship Challenge, which encouraged them to showcase what they learned in a variety of creative forms.

“You don’t have to separate what is happening in the healthcare sphere from your personal voice because your voice is just as embedded.” - Aditi Desai '24

First-year students Aditi Desai and Alison Parish approached this challenge by creating a line graph of the rate of COVID-19 cases as reported by The New York Times, and within each time division of the graph, they shared their experiences and how the pandemic was personally affecting their lives, their families, and their transition to college at that time. Desai and Parish decided to do this because they feel that this topic has mainly been presented to the public as impersonal statistics, but as Desai maintains, “You don’t have to separate what is happening in the healthcare sphere from your personal voice because your voice is just as embedded.”

Desai’s and Parish’s Active Citizenship Challenge project enriched what they learned during the Wintersession event by affirming just how much and how diversely the pandemic has affected specific individuals and communities. To them, this aspect of service engagement is important to take into consideration, because they believe that being an active citizen entails, not only having awareness about the issues that exist within a community, but also being unafraid to engage with the community and its organizations in a proactive way.

This is a sentiment that another Breakout Princeton participant, first-year student Chioma Ugwonali, shares as well. 

For her project, Ugwonali and her partner, first-year student Kennedy Walls, created a short film that presented their peers’ perspectives on representations of human adversity during the pandemic. They asked questions such as “Have you seen images documenting the pandemic that you feel have shared too much or been insensitive?” and “How do you feel when you see a photo of someone suffering?” With this project, their intention was to question the role of mainstream media in collective activism and how such portrayals influence our behavior. 

“The norm is to move past these disturbing aspects of society with minimal or no acknowledgement,” Ugwonali explains. However, she has found that such issues are ones that people are actually willing to share and listen to.

To be an active citizen, Ugwonali emphasizes that one must constantly question whose narratives they are or they are not seeing, and why that may be. This kind of critical thinking is a skill that all three students are grateful that this Active Citizenship Challenge helped them develop, and it is one that they plan to carry with them throughout their life as they continue amplifying unheard voices. 

With its focus on media and individual experience, Breakout Princeton’s Cracks in the System Wintersession event has taught them different ways to dive deeper into aspects of social issues that are not typically talked about, which is important because, as Desai puts it, “there is a lot you can achieve in translating information in unique ways.”

Breakout Princeton is continuing its efforts to broaden Princeton students’ perspectives with two upcoming events during the spring semester 

  • On Saturday, March 20 at 3 p.m., Breakout Princeton Presents: Jael Kerandi. Kerandi was the University of Minnesota's student body president and pushed for the university to change its relationship with the Minneapolis police department after the death of George Floyd, who was killed by the police about 15 minutes away from campus.
  • On Tuesday, April 20 at 6 p.m., join Breakout Princeton for “Change” with the Trenton Circus Squad. As part of a collaborative series with civic engagement centers across the country, this event will feature a screening of the Trenton Circus Squad’s recent justice-centered show.