“I’ve literally been playing all morning,” remarks Emily Aronson, campus life writer in Princeton University’s Office of Communications. Seated at a tiny craft table in a classroom that has just been emptied of toddlers who had been shepherded outside for recess, Aronson finally has a moment to catch her breath.
“We’ve done blocks, cars, dinosaurs, and Frozen 2 - I was Elsa,” she continues. On a chilly Friday morning in mid-January, Aronson carved out an hour of her time to volunteer at Princeton Nursery School, an educational preschool and childcare facility in the historic John Witherspoon neighborhood of the town of Princeton, as part of the University’s annual Month of Service. From January 7-31, 2020, more than 150 Princeton staff, students, faculty, alumni, and friends and family, served in the Princeton community and beyond.
Organized by the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, Month of Service aims to engage the University community in meaningful service, where participants prepare to serve, engage with intention, and learn from their experiences. Many of the community organizations supported by Month of Service are the same as those supported throughout the year by student volunteers, who in January are often busy with finals and then away from campus for Intercession break.
Thomas von Oehsen, executive director with Trenton Circus Squad, concurs. "Princeton University's Month of Service is beneficial for the Trenton Circus Squad youth because they have the opportunity to serve a diverse group of Princeton University staff members while sharing and teaching circus arts skills," he said. "Through these personal connections with our squad members, the staff learn first-hand why Princeton University undergraduates value the relationship they forge with Trenton Circus Squad as Pace Center volunteers."
In the Service of Humanity
In keeping with the goal of engaging in meaningful, thoughtful, and instructive service, volunteers were encouraged to take part in a series of preparatory workshops organized around themes such as allyship or coalition building in service. Reflection lunches each Friday also offered an opportunity for Month of Service participants to meet and connect with fellow volunteers, and reflect on their service experiences.
Month of Service volunteers expressed gratitude for the University’s enthusiastic embrace of employee and student participation in Month of Service. During January, the University counts time spent volunteering as regular work time.
This year’s Month of Service was organized around the theme of “serving together.” In keeping with this mission, volunteers were encouraged to participate with colleagues, peers, and friends. “At its heart, civic engagement is about working collectively to improve our communities and our world,” said Geralyn Williams, program coordinator at the Pace Center and co-organizer of Month of Service. “Service deepens the sense of connection to our community but it also strengthens the bonds we have to the people with whom we serve. We hope these experiences create pathways for our campus community to connect with each other and find ways to connect in their home communities.”
Justine Levine, the dean of Rockefeller College, echoes the idea that volunteering together can enrich the overall experience.
“I encouraged my colleagues to participate in Month of Service because I’ve always felt, even as an undergraduate, that universities are duty-bound to be good citizens in their communities,” she said. “Sometimes, just like our students, we want to work for positive change but we’re not sure where to start, or perhaps we need help pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones to better understand the world in which we live. The Month of Service offers us the space to do so, and the sense that we’re working together as part of a larger University team ‘in the service of humanity’.”
Maureen Novozinsky, senior IT manager in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, volunteered with several colleagues at HomeFront and came away with a similar feeling about the value of collective service.
“I learned…that my team and I work really well together,” she said. “We all recognized each other’s strengths and each one of us played an important role [in] organizing our meal.”
During this year’s Month of Service, volunteers could choose to volunteer their time and talents with a diverse range of organizations, including the Princeton Nursery School, the Pace Center’s Community House after-school programs, Cornerstone Community Kitchen, HomeFront, and Trenton Circus Squad. Participants could also take part in a historical tour of Trenton and donate and pack food and supplies for local organizations like Anchor House and the Princeton Period Project.
"Month of Service allows Princeton Nursery School to continue to utilize amazing volunteers from Princeton University during the month of January," said Rosanda Wong, director of Princeton Nursery School. "As a small nonprofit working with young children, we rely heavily on the volunteers that come to us, so we can provide more one on one help and support for the children. Pace Center volunteers are a part of the family here at PNS, we truly appreciate having their help, and the children love playing with the 'big kids.' Without the time the Pace Center volunteers selflessly give to the children of PNS, we would not be able to run many of the activities and programs for the children, including reading to a child one on one. Our hope is for Pace Center volunteers to appreciate that Princeton is a diverse community and that PNS serves a part of the community that is often forgotten about, the children and families of Princeton and surrounding areas that are struggling to make ends meet and that are food insecure."
In keeping with Princeton University’s motto of knowledge being used “in the service of humanity,” an overriding mission of the Month of Service is to promote learning through civic engagement. Many Month of Service volunteers shared how engaging in the community deepened their understanding of issues in the community, and underscored the importance of being flexible in order to meet an organization’s needs.
At HomeFront for example, volunteers could support the organization’s Diaper Resource Center, ArtSpace, or Teaching Kitchen. Levine recalls that “one thing you learn pretty quickly when you’re working with a community partner is that you go where you’re needed, and they needed some extra hands to cook dinner, so after an hour shift or so in the Diaper Resource Center - a large warehouse space where we organized donations of diapers into smaller packages that would be given to clients - I was asked to join another crew from Princeton that was preparing dinner.”
For other volunteers, support actually began before arriving on site. For Novozinsky and her team, that meant meal planning and purchasing food for the HomeFront Teaching Kitchen. “We needed to plan a meal for 80-100 people that was healthy and not too difficult to cook,” she said. “[My colleagues], Caasi and Kaitlin decided that we would have Taco Tuesday at Homefront. We would make turkey tacos with lots of toppings, Spanish rice and black beans. Caasi and I headed to Costco the day before, where we purchased the menu items. It is not easy to figure out how much food to buy for 80-100 people, but I think we did a pretty good job.”
Many volunteers noted that their experiences helped to make larger systemic issues feel more tangible and real. “Homelessness can feel like an intractable problem, especially in a place like Mercer County where the wealth gap is significant,” said Levine. “But my afternoon at HomeFront reinforced my belief that we can all make some contribution…and that learning about others’ needs through personal connections make social justice issues feel less abstract and more approachable.”