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For most students, their first real taste of the Princeton community occurs during the University’s main pre-orientation programs: Outdoor Action and Community Action. But this September, 40 students will participate in a new pilot program focused solely on issues of identity and inclusivity.

The program will be called Dialogue and Difference in Action, or DDA. Like the University's Outdoor Action and Community Action programs, students participating in the pilot program will break into small groups, each with its own upperclassmen leaders. Unlike OA and CA, participating students will also work closely with staff from Princeton’s Women*s Center, LGBT Center, and the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding.

DDA isn't the only or first program of its kind. Harvard, Yale, and Columbia already have similar programs for first-year students. At Harvard, students can participate in the First Year Urban Program, or FUP. Like Princeton’s current pre-orientation programs, FUP lasts for five days. Similarly, it also gives students the opportunity to work on a service project with a small community-based organization. In some ways, FUP goes a step beyond the University's Community Action program, because it directly engages students in conversations about diversity and identity during their service trips.

“The program uses a social justice education framework to explore issues of equity and diversity,” FUP director Varsha Ghosh said.

Yale’s equivalent program is called Cultural Connections. In the program, Yale students participate in purposeful conversations about identity, as well as field day-type activities and a talent show.

“Conversations ranged from being a gay minority to what’s it’s like being a minority in class,” said Sebastian Quiñonez, a Yale student who participated in the program his freshmen year.

The University's three centers worked together with Vice President for Campus Life W. Rochelle Calhoun and the new Dean for Diversity and Inclusion LaTanya Buck to design and create the new pilot program.

Buck joined the University in the August of 2016. Her position and appointment came as a key recommendation of a special task force on diversity, equity, and inclusion, which includes several undergraduate students. In May 2016, the task force issued a report recommending the University hire a senior administrator whose job would be focus on educating and engaging the entire student body on about issues of difference and identity.

Dialogue and Difference in Action’s counterparts, Outdoor Action and Community Action, currently function mostly on introducing freshmen to the Princeton community in an intimate and bond-forming experience, either in the wilderness or through a service trip.

“Personally, I think DDA will be even more effective at this because it deliberately focuses on issues of identity and social justice on campus,” explained Stephen Chao ’19, who will be one of DDA’s co-facilitators.

“Students will learn how to navigate and engage in what I would call challenging discussions,” said Buck. She explained that the groups will do a combination of discussion and bonding activities, all centered around reflecting upon students’ own individual identities. Students will even be encouraged to talk to one another about aspects of their identities formed as far back as elementary school.

Individual staff members from the centers will also work directly will the small break-out groups. This direct interaction between staff and incoming freshmen goes a step beyond Outdoor Action and Community Action, in which prefrosh only get one-on-one attention from their upperclassmen leaders.

Buck said this new feature is a direct result of University faculty and staff’s tremendous interest in integrating concepts of diversity and inclusion into the first-year experience. Buck also mentioned that the University will critically evaluate the new program. Faculty and staff will take a careful look at how well participating students understood the program’s materials and concepts. Additionally, the assessment will help determine students’ overall experience with the process.

“From what I understand, one of the major goals of the program is to introduce students to some tools they can use to continue these important conversations as they settle into campus life,” Chao said.

The eight student leaders have not yet undergone the required training for the program. They will do so later this summer with staff from the three centers. Further OA and CA training and preparation occurs just before the beginning of the orientation trips as well.

The program’s groups will spend five days at the Garrison Institute, in Garrison, N.Y., a site known for its powerfully contemplative environment. The retreat-like site’s web page states that the insitute "was founded on the belief that action in the world is more compassionate and more effective when infused with the wisdom and skill cultivated in contemplative places.” It has so far specialized in developing methods to combat some of society’s biggest problems in education, ecology, and human rights.

Many upperclassmen leaders already have strong ties to three centers involved in the creation of the program.

Arlene Gamio Cuervo ’18, another co-facilitator, worked at the LGBT Center their sophomore and junior years, and will work at the Fields Center during their final year at Princeton. Cuervo wanted to become a co-facilitator in order to engage incoming students in conversations that address the realities faced by University students who identify with multiple historically marginalized groups. Cuervo said that, right now, the University does not do enough to meet the needs of students who identify as low-income queer people of color, for example. They said the new program should work well to address these institutional issues.

“If you start the conversation as soon as they get on campus, it creates ripple effects on how ‘the Princeton experience’ is constructed,” they said. “We have to catch them early, in other terms,” they added.

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