Nathaniel Fleming ’12 has been selected as this year’s valedictorian and Liz Butterworth ’12 will serve as Latin salutatorian, the University announced at Monday’s faculty meeting following the faculty’s approval of the students’ nominations by the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing.
Fleming, a psychology concentrator pursuing a certificate in French language and culture, has maintained a 4.0 grade point average during his four years at Princeton. In June, he will begin work as a two-year clinical research associate at the NYU Cancer Institute, assisting projects and conducting independent research relating to skin cancer. He said he eventually plans to apply to medical school.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the functioning of the human body is incredibly complex, but also has some beautifully simple and elegant logic to it,” he said. “I think medicine appeals to me so much because it would allow me to pursue this academic-intellectual interest while also applying it to directly contribute to the well-being of other people. It’s the best of both worlds, in a sense.”
A native of Eugene, Ore., Fleming has twice won the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence. He has also won the Howard Crosby Warren Junior Prize in Psychology and the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award, given to the undergraduate who, by the end of his or her junior year, has achieved the highest academic standing for all preceding coursework. Outside of the classroom, he is a member of Glee Club and the Princeton University Chamber Choir and serves as a head fellow at the Writing Center.
Fleming said that Dean of the College Valerie Smith notified him of the Committee’s decision in her office 10 days ago on April 20, after scheduling a meeting with him via email.
“I was blown away,” he said of the announcement. “I didn’t even know what to say. I think she was great about not making fun of me for just sitting there in shock for a few minutes and just letting me take a few minutes to regroup. But obviously I was thrilled — it was very exciting news to hear.”
“I am just thrilled for him,” said psychology professor Barry Jacobs, who advised Fleming’s two junior papers and his thesis.
Jacobs noted that the distinction is an incredible honor that will travel with the winner for the rest his or her life. He expressed confidence that Fleming would wear the title well, and with modesty.
“I think that he is so gifted that my only worry or concern or hope is that society gets to benefit from his gifts,” he said. “He’s not the kid who’s going to go to Wall Street to make a lot of money. That’s not where he’s at. I think that wherever he ends up, he will end up providing benefits to our society in whatever manner that will happen to occur. I’ve never said that about a student before. But I think that that could happen,” he explained.
Looking back, Fleming said he considers his time at Princeton a period of academic exploration and self-discovery. He explained that he had no plans to major in psychology before he took PSY 101: Introduction to Psychology with professor Daniel Oppenheimer. After enjoying that class, Fleming kept taking more, he said.
“It was something I found that I had a passion for and that I really enjoyed thinking about and really enjoyed doing,” he explained.
For his senior thesis and his two junior papers, Fleming focused on the neuroscience of religious epiphanies at the encouragement of Jacobs. First, Fleming researched and synthesized information from hundreds of scientific journal articles on the subject. After the review of the literature, Fleming surveyed students at Princeton Theological Seminary and another seminary in Illinois to examine whether his theories of brain activity conflicted with the students’ personal spiritual experiences.
“There is not always a great crosstalk between religion and science, and religion and neuroscience,” he said. “I think a lot of times neuroscience tries to look at religion as this outside thing, and often times I think religion will do the same thing for science and neuroscience.”
The project was “really satisfying,” he explained, because it attempted to bridge the gulf and communicate between the two fields.
Outside of his home department, Fleming has pursued his interest in French language, culture, history and literature, spending a semester abroad in Paris during the spring of his junior year. He credited an elementary school immersion program for allowing him to become bilingual at an early age so that he could take advanced classes in the French department relatively early.
For his French certificate independent work, he analyzed La Bruyere’s “Caracteres,” a work of satire directed at the court society of Versailles under King Louis XIV of France.
“I have always really enjoyed how satire was constructed back then, in that time period,” he said, explaining that the author used pseudonyms when referring to his opponents instead of directly - and improperly - criticizing them. “It ends up being this fun puzzle where you see there is much, much more than what you see on the surface at first reading, and there is a lot of depth to it, and a lot of intricacies to it,” he added.
French professor Christy Wampole said in an email that she was impressed by Fleming’s performance in her class, FRE 315: Contemporary French Prose. Fleming said he counted the class among his favorite courses taken at the University.
Wampoole noted in an email how much she was impressed by the sophistication of his essay about one of the more difficult writers, Tunisian-born Colette Fellous.
“This composition, written beautifully in a refined, stylistically nuanced French, illustrated the extent to which Nathaniel is talented both as a microscopic and macroscopic reader and thinker,” she said.
“You sense quickly that he is someone who pays attention to the world that surrounds him, and he asserts a quiet, gentle authority in all of his responses. One immediately notices his kindness as an interlocutor, which the other students who took the course with him would certainly acknowledge,” she added.
Associate Professor of French and Italian Volker Schroder, who advised Fleming’s senior independent work in French and had him as a student in FRE 330: Versailles: The Palace of the Sun King, said in an email that Fleming had “excelled in all areas of the class.”
“Nathaniel is an excellent reader, very sensitive to the subtlety and irony of these classical texts as well as to their enduring relevance,” he said.
Senior Associate Dean of the College Claire Fowler is a member of the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing, which chose to nominate Fleming after reading the material sent by his department. She said that when making its decisions, the committee, which consists of seven faculty members and five administrators, takes into account not just the students’ grade point averages, but also “the complexity and sophistication of the program of study.”
“We are looking at the entire picture of the student’s education at Princeton and their accomplishments, not simply a GPA cutoff,” she said, noting that the three to six candidates usually under consideration are all clustered near the top of the GPA scale.
“Is this a stellar academic career at Princeton? Is there breadth in the program? Is there depth in the program? Have they made use of all the opportunities? Have they stretched themselves?” she said. Fowler added that the committee also solicits a letter from the candidate’s independent work adviser.
Fowler said that this year the members were particularly impressed by Fleming.
“One of the interesting things about the valedictorian was not only his exceptional performance within his department,” Fowler said, “... but his program of study was impressive in its breadth - including an extensive exploration of French language and French culture and a semester of study abroad.”
Fowler said that the salutatorian, Butterworth, was “just an all-around star” and “a gifted classicist.”
Classics professor Denis Feeney wrote in an email that Butterworth was “not just one of the best students I’ve met here or elsewhere, but one of the best people.”
“She does so much for other people, without any grandstanding, and has achieved more in her time here at Princeton than one would have thought possible,” he said.
Feeney said that he and everyone else in the department are proud of Butterworth’s decision to work on public education policy, noting that she could have easily gone on to do a Ph.D. in classics and had a glittering career in academia. Describing education policy as one of the greatest challenges facing our nation, he said, “We are going to need people of Liz’s intelligence and human sympathy to solve it.”
In November, Butterworth, a classics concentrator from Auburn, Mass., was named one of Princeton’s three Rhodes Scholars in the Class of 2012. Butterworth, who is also a member of Phi Beta Kappa, tutors students on campus, in Trenton and near her home in Massachusetts. The salutatorian was originally a member of the Class of 2011 but took a year off in the middle of her sophomore year to develop a music-tutoring program back in Massachusetts.
Like Fleming, she has twice won the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence, in addition to also receiving her department’s Charles A. Steele Prize. During her time at Oxford as part of the Rhodes, Butterworth said she will pursue a M.Sc. in comparative and international education, with the ultimate goal of returning to the United States to focus on education policy.
“I was shocked and super excited and honored,” Butterworth said of Smith’s announcement that she had been named salutatorian. “It was amazing.”
Butterworth, who as salutatorian will deliver an address at Commencement in Latin, said that she was looking forward to delivering the address in the old language and that she is glad that “the University has this institutionalized tradition that brings the classical languages to life.”
Butterworth came to the University already considering classics as a major. She started in LAT 101: Beginner’s Latin and by her sophomore year, when she was in LAT 105: Intermediate Latin with her current thesis adviser, classics professor Yelena Baraz, she was sure she wanted to concentrate in the department.
“I love the fact that within classics, you can study all facets of ancient culture, so you’re studying both literature and history,” she said. “And I think the sentiments that are expressed in ancient literature are still very powerful today. You can still read these ancient texts and see how they have shaped what our society is today but also how some of the issues, emotions and problems that are dealt with still resonate,” she explained.
For her junior paper, Butterworth debated traditional theological interpretations of a text called “The Passion of St. Perpetua,” a rare first-person account of a 22-year-old woman who was martyred in a gladiatorial arena in Roman Carthage. For her senior thesis, she analyzed invective in Horace’s first book of satires, tracing the “moments of blame, insinuated blame and allusions to the civic breakdown and civil wars that were happening at the time.”
Her interest in classics took her beyond the classroom to field excavation sites in Italy in the summer after her sophomore year and Greece in the summer following her junior year. In Italy, she worked on a site called Gabii, an ancient city-state located about 15 kilometers outside of Rome to discover how Rome might have developed as a city. In Nemea, Greece, she excavated a sanctuary for Zeus and a shrine to a local hero.
While Butterworth said that she has evolved as a scholar in the classics department, she also said that it had been her community service work that “completely changed what I want to do with my life.”
After her sophomore fall, she took the calendar year of 2009 off from Princeton to start a program called “Afternoon Tunes” at All Saints Church in Worchester, Mass., where she frequently volunteers. The program, which is now concluding its third year, offers free music instruction and instruments to children from low-income backgrounds. The staff consists of 10 advanced-level high school and college volunteer musicians who work under a professional music instructor who serves as a mentor. About 30 students come in once a week for lessons, she said. Butterworth said she still oversees the program.
“That’s been a phenomenal experience, both the impact the program has had on the students, but also the leadership development opportunities for the teachers,” she said. “It’s been fun to watch our students and our teachers grow.”
Butterworth cited the experience at “Afternoon Tunes” as sparking her interest in arts education and education reform.
“I am really interested in trying to expand and increase access to the arts,” she said.
She described how multiple childhood experiences have reinforced her belief in the power of art to build character: taking piano lessons at age six with a supportive, but strict, teacher who treated her as a professional and taught her the power of constructive criticism; gaining confidence while performing in front of audiences; and learning how to collaborate with others in high school theater productions.
Butterworth added that it was important for students to learn Latin and Greek alongside other foreign languages in the classroom. She lamented the fact that these subjects are generally offered only for students at private schools or “really, really good” public schools.
“What I think is really fantastic about Latin is that whenever you’re reading ... you’re almost forced to do a very close reading and think about what every word means because there is sort of a distance between you and the text that you have to try to overcome and work with,” she said. “I think that is a skill that transfers very well toward any profession.”
After receiving her master’s degree from Oxford, Butterworth said she hopes to become involved in education policy work, possibly from a research-academic angle. Eventually, she said she plans to gain experience teaching, which she considers “essential to influencing policy and teaching effectively.”
To make the most of the Princeton experience, Butterworth suggested to students that they make an effort to get to know their professors.
“Try as much as possible not to be super nervous about that because it is a really nerve-wracking thing, especially as a freshman, to put yourself out there,” she said. “But the professors, in my opinion, are really interested in what you have to say and want to see you develop as a scholar.”
To Fleming, undergraduates should pursue subjects and extracurricular activities that they are genuinely interested in to get the most out of Princeton. Fleming noted that as a premedical student, he had to resist the temptation to major in the natural sciences, which he noted was more “conventional.”
Fleming added that students should not be hesitant to try new things.
“I think that those are the sorts of things that can lead you to discover that there is something that you are really interested in, that you really enjoy doing,” he said. “And ultimately, that was my experience for myself. I think that ultimately, it can lead to some really great results if you’re open-minded that way,” he said.
Fleming will give the head address and Butterworth the Latin address at Commencement on June 5.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/04/30/30830/