The Pace Center for Civic Engagement is the community service organization that encourages students to connect with the communities around them, by combining the attitudes for service and learning.
This week on Street, in the theme of being in and out of Princeton, Street decided to interview Simran Mathews ’18, Charlotte Reynders ’19, and Kyle Lang ‘19, who serve as the coordinators of some of the community service projects at Princeton, to learn how they balance their lives at the University with their engagement with outside communities.
The Daily Princetonian: Could you briefly describe the Pace Center or the community service program that you serve with?
Simran Mathews ’18: I am involved in the College Counseling Project, and the program’s overall goal is to match mentors, who are Princeton freshmen, with mentees, who are high school students from around the New Jersey surrounding area. The mentees would either come to campus or we would go to their schools. The goal is to bridge the gap between where they are at now, and college. Often, these students are first-generation or low-income people. They don’t necessarily know a lot about the college application processes or understand why college could be beneficial to them. Being matched with a Princeton student is designed to help them become more informed so that they can make that [college] decision in a way that is more optimal. In addition, the program tries to ensure that they have someone to walk them through every step, whether it involves SAT prep, essay writing, or even reaching out to their parents to ask about financial aid information.
Charlotte Reynders ’19: I am one of the project leaders of LEAP, which stands for Learning Enrichment in the Arts Program. The program is under the Student Volunteers Council, which is part of the overarching umbrella of the Pace Center. We volunteer in Trenton every Friday, at an after-school program, and lead an hour-long creative arts workshop.
Kyle Lang ’19: The Loaves and Fishes program is set up in a unique way because it is a restaurant-style soup kitchen. So we actually bring the plates up to the guests and serve them beverages. It allows us to have a more personal connection with them, which is very meaningful. The Pace Center tries to help students get involved in the broader community. I think service is something that every student should consider seriously. What am I going to do with the opportunities I have to give back to those who might not have the same opportunities that I do?
DP: Why did you choose to get involved with community service, or the Pace Center?
SM: I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, which is part of a larger city, and I was exposed to people from different walks of life and ages. I thought, like any other college, Princeton narrows that experience and diversity. So I wanted an avenue to get out of this place [the Orange Bubble] and see what real life is like, but I also genuinely cared about high school children who didn’t grow up with the same resources that I did — such as a high school guidance counselor, or financial aid. All those reasons worked together, and I knew a couple of friends who were interested in applying to this program during its inaugural year, so I was basically roped into it. Yet I’ve never looked back.
CR: I have always been interested in the intersection between arts and service. I think the arts are a universal language that we can use to build some solutions on a global level but also within a community.So, I applied to volunteer with LEAP during the fall of my freshman year because the program aligned with my interests.
KL: It was always a part of my high school experience and I knew that it was something I wanted to continue while in college. I’m part of the Aquinas Community, which is the Catholic community on campus. During the spring semester of last year, we got the opportunity to volunteer at Loaves and Fishes, which is a soup kitchen in Trenton. I signed up, and thought it was a good way to give back to those in need. Incidentally, though, there was another group of Princeton students there: a group of seniors who needed underclassmen to take over the Loaves and Fishes project. So my first time volunteering at Loaves and Fishes was also when I got involved with heading it for the next year.
DP: Did you engage with community service before getting to Princeton?
CR: I did actually. When I was in high school, I volunteered in Lynn, Massachusetts, doing arts and crafts with kids in grade school. It was a great way to get to know the kids and practice different skills like empathy and team-building.
DP: Did anyone inspire you to want to help in this way?
SM: My parents are immigrants so they didn’t know much about colleges in the U.S. So it was really my math teacher who worked with me from one of the first few days of high school, and was always planning out the next couple steps. He was such an incredible resource because I would never have been that inspired and motivated on my own, since I didn’t know my capabilities. He, however, never had any doubts, and always encouraged me to reach milestones.
DP: What comes to mind when you hear Princeton’s informal motto, “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity”?
CR: When I was younger,I attended this arts camp called Interlochen. Their motto is dedicated to the promotion of world friendship through the universal language of the arts. I think that has helped me conceptualize Princeton’s mission when it comes to arts and service. I have realized that we can use art as a way to traverse different barriers, whether language or background. The arts help us build connections in unexpected ways and help promote risk-taking, empathy, and mutual understanding.
DP: How has the program shaped or affected your overall Princeton experience?
CR: Volunteering has really impacted my experience at Princeton and I think every student should get involved with service in some capacity. I love the opportunity it offers to get off campus, because it causes a frameshift in terms of seeing the world from a different angle. People say that it’s like getting out [of] the Orange Bubble, but I don’t think that’s the right explanation because service is more contiguous with my Princeton experience. It’s a way to extend the learning that I’ve already done on campus. Service also challenges me, as it requires a lot of empathy, problem solving, and vulnerability. Vulnerability in the sense that service requires a lot of communication, especially for me because I work with little kids, so I have to be willing to show my vulnerable side, be real, take risks, and let out my inner kid. It has helped me to grow as a student and person.
KL: I think our unofficial motto is always something that we should keep at the back of our minds while going about our day, whether it’s actively volunteering, looking out for a friend on campus, or holding the door open for someone. For me, it’s been a good way to meet a lot of other Princeton students who want to be active in the community. We’re so blessed to be at Princeton — we pretty much have everything that we could want: meals on a daily basis and we have great professors. When you go out from the Princeton campus, and see people who don’t have all those necessities provided for them on a daily basis, it changes your perspective and makes you realize how fortunate you are, and want to give back.
DP: Do you have a favorite memory from your volunteering experience?
CR: What I love about LEAP is that you get to learn more about the same group of kids. You work with the same group of students throughout the year, and the program is for kids in kindergarten up till fifth grade, so if you volunteer with the program for multiple years, you get to see them grow over the years. I’ve loved seeing kids come out of their shells. I remember during one of the first days, there were two boys sitting in the corner, who had been signed up for LEAP as an extracurricular activity, but weren’t too excited about the idea of doing art. So they were pouting and seemed a bit upset. Ultimately, though, we started working on a Halloween project with them, and they got really into it. They said that they were excited to return the next week. It was cool to see that kind of transformation.
KL: Right before Thanksgiving break, while volunteering at Loaves and Fishes, I met this gentleman who came up to me and started talking about his high school in South Carolina. Since it was football season, he was about to go to South Carolina to cheer the football team on. This past weekend, when I went down to volunteer, I saw him again and even though I hadn’t seen him in the last couple of months, we recognized each other. We had a conversation about how his team did (unfortunately, they lost). Just these conversations that you can have with people on a weekly basis, and the chance to form a connection with them, that they might be unable to have during the week, is inspiring. During another day of volunteering, the same gentleman led all the volunteers in a large prayer, which was very cool.