Since 2015, Princeton Writes has held an essay contest for staff, which aims to encourage and celebrate the thoughtfulness and creativity of Princeton’s talented staff members. This year, University staff were invited to “describe an act of kindness or selflessness, large or small, that you have experienced or witnessed and explain how this has affected you.” In all 42 staff members submitted essays, and the John H. Pace, Jr. '39 Center for Civic Engagement’s very own Maggie Hussar, Community Action Program Coordinator, was recognized with an Honorable Mention for her essay “The Seed.”
How did you find out about the Princeton Writes staff essay contest, and what made you want to submit something?
“I started working at Princeton in January of 2019 and my supervisor, Sara Gruppo, shared a ton of resources and information with me, a piece of which was the Princeton Writes Staff Essay Contest. I was able to submit something last minute [in 2019], but was looking forward to this year’s contest and having more time to craft something I was proud of. So I kept my eye out for an email announcing the prompt and went from there!"
In your day job, you are the program coordinator for Community Action at the Pace Center. Has writing been a hobby of yours for a while or was this essay a newer venture for you? If it is something you do regularly, how would you say that writing intersects with your work at the Pace Center (if at all)?
“I’ve always liked writing, especially with prompts. I was one of the few kids in middle school and high school who looked forward to all of our English assignments, but I didn’t get as much of that prompted creative writing experience in college. When I was in graduate school, I served as a content editor for our literary journal, and so I did a lot of fine-tuning of my technical writing skills but still wasn’t getting the creative writing aspect I craved. I would write little poems here or there, and always had a good time thinking of (and this sounds silly) expressive and meaningful Instagram captions, but I wouldn’t have ever considered writing a hobby of mine.
I think with any job, or any aspect of life, being able to succinctly and effectively communicate is key. For me, communicating well through writing and communicating well through speech go hand-in-hand. I’m an internal processor, so it’s almost like I’m constantly journaling my thoughts in my head, or drafting what I’ll say within the confines of my brain. From that perspective, communication is a huge part of my work at the Pace Center. When I’m writing emails to students to talk about Community Action, their work as student leaders, or just to check-in, I’m practicing my effective communication skills. The same goes for facilitating trainings and workshops – the script I write for myself when I present is key in helping students achieve optimal learning.”
Your essay was so moving. I read it over the weekend and couldn't help thinking about how well it coincided with Mother's Day. This made me think more about "mothering" as a form of nurturing and care. In its ideal form, this involves unconditional love, acceptance, and support for a child no matter who they are. I wonder if there are any aspects of this kind of care -- which seems to have been modeled so well by your mom -- that you incorporate into your own work, with students and the community?
“Yes, absolutely! One of the overarching themes I derive from my experiences with my mom is this sense of respect for individuality and a lack of assumption. I know that it comes from a place of love, but I also interpret it as this really rational thing. In my opinion, it would only cause harm if I brought my own expectations about how a student should live their life as they pursue joy and health.
This definitely manifests in the way I interact with students. I let them share their values, beliefs, passions, and dreams with nothing but mirrored interest and support. I can offer a challenging perspective when it seems like there might be room for exploration, but it’s all only ever in the name of fully embracing who they are as individuals. Since I’m a staff member, I think there can be an instinct in some students to sort of curate who they are and what they share with me because there is this institutionalized power divide. How I respond to what students share with me has a big effect on how comfortable they are being themselves. I think a lot of people, myself included, have experienced individuals in their lives expressing apathy or even negativity towards who they are and what they care about. I’d rather listen, learn, and support someone’s exploration of who they are.”
Did you show this essay to your mom? What was her reaction?
“I actually haven’t shown her! This essay, at its core, shares the same theme of appreciation and acknowledgment that I conveyed in a speech I wrote for Rainbow Graduation (a celebration of all graduating LGBTQA+-identified students) when I earned my Master’s degree. My mom was able to watch that speech online and I remember her main reaction just being proud of me.
We’ve talked extensively about her parenting (along with my dad’s, who is not featured in this essay but also had an equally important effect on me) and her mindset has always kind of been a 'duh' one. What I mean is that she wasn’t parenting me in that way because it was this big brave thing to do; she did it because it makes sense. Why should any parent assume that their kid will be straight? Why should any parent expect their kid to perform traditional gender expressions? It just didn’t make sense to her, so I don’t think she’s inherently proud of herself for doing what she thinks any good parent should do. If anything, I think she’s just really happy that I’m happy and that she helped make that happen.”
Did any of your colleagues at the Pace Center know about your essay before you submitted it? Did you have any helpers in the writing or editing process?
“We have a few past winners in the Pace Center, so there’s an existing culture of checking in with each other along the lines of, 'Are you going to submit anything?' But I didn’t discuss with anyone the actual content of what I’d be submitting.
One of my best friends from childhood, who knew me through all of the life stages I describe in my essay (and served as a writing fellow in college), helped me edit. After reading my essay, she shared how much it brought her back to her own childhood. We went to the same elementary school and actually visited it together as adults, so she deeply related to the scene I describe in the beginning of my essay of how spaces like school cafeterias transform in adulthood.”
Many people would say that an integral part of writing is reading. With that in mind, what are you reading right now? Are there any writers/essayists/critics/poets, etc. who have particularly influenced you, either in your life or your writing?
“I just finished reading 'Ender’s Game' (so good) and 'The Book Thief' (sobbed) and am still dipping my toe into other books to see which I’ll read next.
I’m sure so many authors have influenced me. I still think about all of the books I loved in childhood, particularly those by Sharon Creech (she wrote 'Walk Two Moons,' which I know many kids read in elementary school) because I still like to visit the visual memories my imagination created as I read her books. I think about Audre Lorde and her ability to express perspective-shifting thoughts through essays that read like poetry. I’m also deeply influenced by cooking, music, and painting. Those three realms of art are so sensory that I often channel how they make me feel into my writing.”