At Alan B. Shepard Elementary School in Old Bridge, NJ, six children stood in front of me, tri-fold displays open to show off schools like Princeton, Monmouth, Texas A&M, Dartmouth and more. I immediately welled up with emotion and pride. I constantly think about my family and their sacrifices. About my twin brother at Indiana University of Pennsylvania; about my little sister and what she can accomplish; about how my parents worked 50- to 60-hour work-weeks at times, just so we could have a roof over our heads.
As I took questions from the young, ambitious fifth-graders, my eyes began to well up with tears as a student asked me the following: What does it mean to you and your family to be at such a prestigious school as Princeton University? In that moment, I held back my emotions and told the students the truth: Princeton, the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, and the opportunities that are at Princeton mean the world to me and my family, and they are changing my life—even in the very moments I walk through their own school building. I felt that the gravity of my answer probably flew over their heads (they were just excited to meet a college student), but to me I come to face with that feeling every single day.
After the visit, I went back to my dorm, reflected on my road to Princeton and cried tears of happiness. Happiness that any one of those kids could achieve greatness. Happiness that Alan. B Shepard was planting a seed in these young minds. Little did I know that when I became a Community Action Fellow that I would work with Alan B. Shepard Elementary and it would make me reflect on my background and my own path to Princeton University.
In my high school years, I was a student at Chambersburg Area Senior High School, a public school in my hometown of Chambersburg, PA. I was recognized by my peers as a good student, a good athlete, and a student leader. On the outside, my teachers and my friends thought I had this college thing down and figured out. But, on the inside I found myself scrambling and searching for words when my friends would talk about college and anything that involved college. As most of my peers in my advanced level courses had parents that went to college or had money to receive SAT tutoring, my family and I struggled and lived paycheck-to-paycheck. Let me set the record straight—I am absolutely proud to admit that I am a first-generation, low-income student at Princeton University. But being first-gen and low-income, I didn’t know how to talk about loans, how to apply to college, or what college life was like. I didn’t know anything. I was always afraid to talk about college with teachers because, unlike my peers, my parents didn’t go to college and couldn’t pass down their knowledge.
However, my parents persisted that I go college in order to get out of the hard times and the struggles. Through my parents, a love for education and learning blossomed. My mother and father, although never finishing high school, taught me to love learning and to enjoy thinking. They taught me that learning didn’t need to just be reading books or finishing math problems, but rather learning could be from social situations and conversations with people of different backgrounds. Take for example, my background. My parents are blue collar as it gets. My father has worked construction for almost 30 years. My mother was a bartender for 10 years before settling down into a customer service job at Citibank. Having that blue collar background, it allowed me to meet people from all walks of life. From those who were drug addicted, to people inside of churches praying for those same people. From those who worked under poverty, to the bosses of my parents. These personal connections and social settings have allowed me to learn about real issues in communities that surround me.
Because of these personal connections, I’ve always had a love for service. Growing up, my parents always told me and my siblings that there will always be someone smarter, bigger, stronger, richer, better looking etc., but that doesn’t ever make anyone better than us and neither does it make us better than anyone else. I took my parents’ lesson to heart and always felt that because of it, I took to service. This personal connection led me to the Pace Center at Princeton and most notably my Community Action Fellowship. Community Action (CA) is a small-group experience of Princeton Orientation facilitated by the Pace Center that introduces first-year students to service at Princeton.
As a CA Fellow, I create the small-group experiences for the first-year students. I research the Central Jersey community, meet with organizations and visit the area—but to me, my position is much more than that. I see it as a time to be close and intimate with service and my own personal beliefs. To me it’s a chance to explore New Jersey as an outsider. I visit the coast to see ongoing disaster relief work stemming from Hurricane Sandy. I visit and speak with citizens in New Brunswick about hunger and how food is connecting community. I have the opportunity to learn how arts play a role in the community near Lawrence and West Windsor, and so much more. Most of all my position is an opportunity to break the “orange bubble” and learn about how great organizations are serving the central New Jersey region.
I visited Alan B. Shepard Elementary the week before school ended with the help of Jean Czarkowski, the school’s guidance counselor. Anyone that knows anything about public schooling knows that weeks before summer break are insane and high energy. Yet Jean, Principal Joseph Marinzoli, and all the teachers inside welcomed me with open arms to learn more about their school and to share my story. I sat inside one of the fifth-grade classrooms and learned about their college fair and their projects. The students asked me lots of questions. I learned about how the school was a National School of Character. By the end of my visit, I began to get excited about planning a CA experience with Alan B. Shepard for first-year Princeton students to learn about college access, inclusivity, and empowerment in education.
Just as Alan B. Shepard hopes to plant a seed for their students, through CA I hope to plant a seed for first-years here at Princeton. I want to welcome students to Princeton with open arms and show them that Princeton can offer the world to them. I hope to welcome students to the Pace Center and civic engagement here at the University. I hope CA can be a refuge for nervous and scared first-years, all bottled up together through similar interests. These students go in knowing no-one in their groups and come out having made 12 or so intensely close friendships. But, most of all, I hope to instill gratitude and understanding for different backgrounds in my first-year students—just like my parents have done with me back home for the last 19 years.