In fifth grade, Natalie Tung went with her mother to a rural village in China to teach children English. As a young girl from Hong Kong, the experience sparked within her a passion for education and set the course for her own academic path.
“I realized then I wanted to be a teacher,” said Tung, now a Princeton University senior. “And when I got to Princeton, as much as I wanted to be a teacher, I also realized I wanted to do something larger in the realm of education to make an impact.”
As the co-founder and executive director of HomeWorks, a nonprofit organization that provides an afterschool boarding program to underserved middle and high school girls in Trenton, NJ, she is making an impact on campus and in the community.
An impact that has earned her the A. James Fisher, Jr. Memorial Prize – an honor awarded annually by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement to a Princeton senior who demonstrates an entrepreneurial spirit; exudes a zest for life; enthusiastically builds community at Princeton; mentors and promotes their peers; and is committed to Princeton and its mission of service.
How HomeWorks Began
As an international boarding school student at the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, NJ, Tung realized that her experience was not one that everyone could have access to, particularly students in urban communities.
“I wanted to find a way to start a school and make a boarding experience possible for underserved youth,” said Tung, an English major pursuing a certificate in Teacher Preparation and member of the women’s varsity squash team. “But starting a school is no easy task.”
As a sophomore in February 2016, Tung took a social entrepreneurship course through the Keller Center taught by Princeton alum Martin Johnson ’81, founder and CEO of Isles, Inc., an urban sustainable development organization that fosters self-reliance and healthy neighborhoods.
“He made me believe I could do something now and not just wait until I had graduated from Princeton,” said Tung. In class she teamed up with Brenaea Fairchild ’16 to develop HomeWorks. Instead of creating an entire new school, the duo sought to supplement the Trenton public school system and developed a way to blend the assets of boarding school and after-school enrichment programs.
The model they developed focuses on empowering young women by providing strong academic support and a stable home environment through an after-school boarding program. Students attend public school during the day and come to HomeWorks once they are dismissed. Through HomeWorks students receive mentorship and academic support, participate in community-oriented activities, and stay overnight. Students board from Sunday night until Friday morning, reconnecting with family on the weekend.
In 2016, the duo talked to people in the community, found experienced mentors, and built a collaborative team dedicated to bringing HomeWorks to life. After formally becoming a nonprofit through the eLab Incubator Program, Tung and her team placed second in the 2017 Princeton Social Impact Competition (PSICOMP) winning $10,000 in the spring.
“This really pushed us to test our model,” said Tung. In July, HomeWorks moved ahead with a four-week pilot program where five girls boarded in a Trenton residence and took part in a curriculum focused on social and emotional growth, academics, life skills, and being a community and global citizen.
Learning along the Way
“Natalie is one of those special people on a team who I call a ‘connector’,” said Gail Ramsay, head coach of the women’s squash team. “She is the person who reaches out and touches each member of the team in a personal and caring way. By doing so she is able to get to know them and understand the best way of including them in the team environment.”
Ever the team player, Tung is quick to point out how HomeWorks would not have become a reality without the support of many in the community and on campus.
“HomeWorks has enabled me to learn a lot about the community in Trenton,” she said. “It was so important for us to approach this from the perspective of supporting the community and learning from the community, as opposed to trying to impose something on them. There are so many great organizations. I’ve learned a lot about how we can best support the community as a nonprofit.”
Tung also attributes HomeWorks to helping her become a more effective leader.
“We have such an amazing team,” she said. “It’s been incredibly rewarding to meet everyone. I’ve learned a lot about how to manage a team and effectively work together. It’s so important for everyone to have ownership and communicate as we collaborate.”
Many of the staff members who recommended Tung for the Fisher Prize recognized her for her leadership abilities, passion and tenacity.
“From the very start HomeWorks was an ambitious and challenging project,” said Kevin Wong, a member of the Class of 2005 and eLab mentor. “Despite challenge after challenge, Natalie marched forward and worked with her team to find solutions, over and over again.”
Moving forward, Tung and her team are building toward launching HomeWorks as a full-time program in the fall of 2018. At that time, HomeWorks will have 10 girls participating in the program. Each year, HomeWorks plans to expand by 10 students, ultimately serving 40 girls at full capacity.
“We’re working to establish a board of directors, continuing to raise funds, obtain further licenses, and hire staff,” she said. “We are so thankful to everyone who has helped us get this far, and the amazing organizations, like HomeFront and Sustainable Fare, who have helped us with everything from free furniture to free dinners, to make HomeWorks possible.”
Ultimately, Tung has big aspirations for HomeWorks and is thinking about how in the very long term the organization could potentially open up chapters around the nation and the world.
“I am incredibly honored to receive the Fisher Prize,” said Tung. “I know there have been a lot of amazing people at Princeton who have done incredible things in service and entrepreneurship and to be part of that is really special. I’m really honored to be part of this close and supportive community.”