Service with an Entrepreneurial Spirit: Senior Emma Coley honored with Fisher Award

Wednesday, Feb 5, 2020
by Benjamin Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

"My service work on campus has focused on working with other students to reshape our Princeton education both in terms of who are seen as its ‘experts’ and what our education should be in the pursuit of,” said Emma Coley '20, recipient of the 2019 A. James Fisher, Jr. Memorial Award. Given in honor of A. James Fisher, Jr. '36, the award is presented each year to a Princeton senior who best exemplifies the qualities for which Mr. Fisher is remembered: an entrepreneurial spirit, zest for life, love of people, and loyalty to Princeton through their work in the realm of civic engagement.

Coley, a senior concentrating in religion with certificates in urban studies, ethnographic studies and humanistic studies, was honored for her dedication to various service programs as well as for her creative and innovative approach to projects, such as the Princeton Asylum Project. According to Associate Dean of Religious Life Matthew Weiner, this program was created to “identify and secure expert witnesses (in the form of university scholars) for sensitive asylum cases being handled by Catholic Charities.”

Coley was responsible for assembling a team of students to conduct research into the recruitment of scholars to testify in support of asylum seekers’ claims. Coley managed a team of fifteen students and oversaw communications for the entire project. 

Emma Coley in Oman

Emma Coley ’20 helps prepare a meal as part of a fall break trip in 2018 to Oman with the Office of Religious Life to learn about inter-religious relationships in the Sultanate. Photo courtesy of the Office of Religious Life

“When we put a student in a leadership position for a is essential to have a student who behaves like a professional staff,” Weiner said. “Only a very exceptional student can basically be serving as my high level program coordinator, building the program along with me, and interfacing with lawyers at Catholic Charities and scholars at Princeton and around the country.”

In order to organize The Asylum Project, Coley had to ensure that there was a viable network of students that could quickly contact experts to assist in ongoing trials. This kind of project had never occurred before in an American undergraduate institution, and Coley explained her mindset in curating this and other service efforts as “entrepreneurial,” which, she said, “doesn’t mean 'what have I created that is somehow ‘new’?' but rather what have we created that is new here, on a campus long shaped by the ideas and traditions of a certain select few. My love of Princeton comes from my love of those mentors, teachers, and friends who have encouraged and inspired this type of creative re-imagining of what a university is and what it can be for.”
Coley also elaborated on how The Asylum Project is a culmination of much of her work at Princeton “because it allows me to build upon experiences I have had working at the local and campus levels through the Pace Center and because it explores, in a concrete way, the role that students, scholars, and a university can play in the careful mobilization of knowledge in the creation of a more just world—not in the abstract, but in terms of the lives of real people.”

Through The Asylum Project as well as other endeavors, Coley’s leadership capabilities became well known. 

“Emma creates a climate in which people want to do their best. She recognizes the value of understanding the origin and reasoning behind an idea, suggestion, or recommendation,” said Elsie Sheidler, the senior associate director of the Pace Center. “She makes sound decisions based upon analysis, wisdom, experience and judgement, while also appreciating and seeking out advice and solutions from others when needed.” Sheidler also praised Coley’s management, problem solving and organizational skills, which had all been crucial in her numerous service projects.

These strengths were echoed by Charlotte Collins, associate director of the Pace Center, who described how “Emma is a community builder and a community strengthener. She understands what it means to be both ally and advocate, and seeks to stand with and create space for other voices to be heard.”

Emma Coley and Jane Sanchez Swain

Emma Coley ’20 with Jane Sanchez Swain, former program coordinator for Community Action at the Pace Center. Photo by David Kelly Crow

Introducing Coley, Jane Sanchez Swain, a former program coordinator for Community Action, traced Coley’s service journey from before her time at Princeton. “As a young girl from Ohio with a Jesuit school background, Emma has always been committed to service … she was a part of the Bridge Year program in Bolivia before starting her time at Princeton and I still remember her stories about her time there, her love for the culture and her host family, and yes, sometimes even hearing the stories in Spanish so that she wouldn’t get rusty.”

Swain also focused on how Coley “played an integral role in the strategic rebirth of the Pace Council for Civic Values, with a focus on inclusivity and community building.”

 In her acceptance speech, Coley highlighted the friendships, mentorships, and institutional partnerships that encouraged and enabled her service activities, including The Princeton Asylum Project, Community Action, and the Pace Council for Civic Values.

“At Princeton, true friendship has meant that I join my classmates when they are protesting, organizing, working to fashion their departments, this University, and this world into a place that is livable for them,” she added.