“Service is what makes us bigger than the sum of our social parts. Service is what allows us to connect to ourselves in a deeper way,” said Benjamin Thornton, the Community Partner-in-Residence at the John H. Pace Center, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, in his opening speech at the Lift as You Climb conference. This day-long event, held on Saturday, September 28 at the Frist Campus Center, aimed to create meaningful dialogue on volunteering and doing service well, and brought together students, community partners, staff, and even alumni.
The conference began with Thornton’s remarks, during which he discussed his work as the director of outreach services for Anchor House, an organization focused on assisting at-risk youth in Trenton. As Community Partner-in-Residence, Thornton brings his expertise and community perspective to campus. As Lift as You Climb, he also stressed the importance of service not only as a worthwhile activity but as a means of enriching one’s life in order to give it purpose. “By serving others we take their stories and strengths with us and we are allowed to share ourselves with others,” he said.
Just after Thornton’s talk, the conference opened to a series of lectures, panels, and interactive sessions. One of the lectures held, Princeton Beyond The Gates, was given by Shirley Satterfield, a sixth generation Princetonian and renowned local historian. Satterfield highlighted the most significant events in Princeton's history, from its founding in 1683 to the present, while also focusing on the racial evolution of the town which she witnessed firsthand.
Throughout her speech, Satterfield also mentioned the histories of notable Princeton residents such as the first seven presidents of the Princeton University and Elizabeth Stockton, a freed slave who became a renowned teacher in the town in the nineteenth century. She also included a fascinating personal anecdote about meeting Albert Einstein as a child, not even realizing who he was at the time.
Another event held at the conference was the alumni panel, which included four graduates who spoke about their experiences with service while at Princeton and how they have incorporated those experiences into their lives and careers since graduating.
“Service was integral to my time at Princeton, it was my extracurricular," said Jarron McAllister ’16, who is now a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. An aspiring lawyer with a focus on public interest law, McAllister has worked at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan among other nonprofits seeking to do service through the legal system. McAllister stressed how his service activities at school led directly to his current career choices, saying that "Service was very important to me; it led to my current career path in the law."
This was echoed by Claire Nuchturn ’15, a seventh grade math teacher in New York City with an interest in education and criminal justice policy. She agreed that she “started service pretty much the first day of Princeton" and went on the participate in Breakout Princeton trips and other organizations such as The Petey Greene Program that strengthened the connection between her studies and her volunteering.
The alumni also discussed how to balance the abundance of privilege and opportunities students are given at Princeton with the need to engage with less fortunate individuals and communities:
Daniella Gitlin ’06, who is currently getting her Ph.D. in comparative literature at New York University and also helps run Word Up, a non-profit bookstore in New York City, built from this idea, describing how while she was at Princeton she thought that “the motto of the school [at the time], ‘Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations’ was very demanding. I felt the pressure of that ... and how to negotiate your privilege or lack of privilege in the world, that never changes." She prescribed a more holistic way of looking at service in one’s life. “Service is a way of being in the world,” she said.
Lou Chen ’19, who works on campus integrating service and arts programs, recommended to students that they stick to their instincts when deciding on what career path will allow them to be both personally fulfilled as well as enable them to contribute to a social good. “Follow your gut,” he said. “Follow that voice in your head telling you to do what you love.” While at Princeton, Chen established the Trenton Youth Orchestra, a program that connects Trenton and Princeton University students for music lessons at Princeton, a program that he continues running today.
The alumni all reminisced about the service experiences they had on campus, with Chen saying how one inspiring thing he saw while at Princeton was “seeing people coalesce” around his service projects. “There’s great potential for this kind of work at Princeton as long as there are people pushing for it,” he said. A similar sentiment was shared by McAllister, who underscored the importance of the “connections that I made while doing service” at Princeton. “This support is what drives my desire to do public interest law,” he said.
Later on in the day the conference hosted additional talks, such as Being Well Serving Well, on self-care and its connection to service, and Cultural Humility and Navigating Privilege, which examined how to do service while being conscious of different communities and their circumstances. The conference also included a training session for some new guidelines of how to work with minors.
Overall, the conference exemplified the praise Thornton offered for the student volunteers in attendance during his speech: “You’ve committed to deepening your volunteer or service experience in order to honor, respect, and lift up the inherent worth and dignity of the communities and people you wish to serve … you are truly lifting as you climb in ways you may not imagine.”