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“This is the sort of project that should come out of a daydream,” Lekha Kanchinadam ’15 explained. “They are giving you money to do anything you want.”

Each fall, the Dean of Mathey College Dr. Lestition tells members of the sophomore class to put on their thinking caps, because they’re applying to a competitive program that will force them to creatively make a case for summer funding — the Martin A. Dale ’53 Summer Award.

Recipients of the prize receive $4,000 and an exemption from meeting any of their expected summer earnings to construct an independent project focused on personal growth and exploration. If that guideline — one of the few that the application for the prize provides prospective applicants — seems a bit vague, that’s because it was meant to be.

The namesake of the grant, Martin Dale ’53, hoped to provide the financial support for students to pursue their diverse individual interests before feeling pressure to concentrate on just one throughout their remaining years at the University.

“He was a charming man who loved the idea of contributing to student experiences. He wanted to capture students before they specialized and before they became focused on their careers to do something off the charts, something completely extraordinary,” Lestition explained. “That was the origin of the sophomore focus.”

Each residential college selects one winner of the award from its pool of student applicants, before nominating its strongest remaining candidates to a central pool. Depending on the current size of the endowment, the Office of the Dean of the College will choose any number of additional applicants to receive the award.

Last year, 13 sophomores won a Dale. I sat down with three to chat about their original motivations behind proposing a project, their summer experiences and their hopes for continuing on with the work they were doing.

Proposing a trip

Claire Nuchtern ’15 proposed an ambitious eight-week road trip across the United States called “Sibs’ Journey” to learn more about the family dynamics and individual effects of having a sibling with special needs through a series of 85 interviews, a trip inspired by her own relationship with her brother, who has Asperger syndrome.

“A lot of people don’t have much exposure to what it’s like to be a sibling of someone with special needs. A lot of people have read accounts of what it’s like to have Down syndrome or what it’s like to have autism, but fewer people have read sibling perspectives,” Nuchtern explained. “I think a huge part of the way I’ve learned to understand our relationship was through talking with other sibs about their experiences.”

Kanchinadam drew similar inspiration from her family background when she proposed a culinary project designed to take her to Hyderabad in southern India to learn how to cook traditional dishes with her grandmother acting as her teacher. Kanchinadam is a former writer for The Daily Princetonian.

Dean Lestition noted the influence family roots often had in motivating students to apply for the Dale. However, he added that more generally, the award tends to attract a pool of adventuresome applicants who are willing to take risks.

Cody O’Neil ’15 used his stipend to travel to the Atacama Desert of Chile to photograph the night sky as part of project he called “Capturing the Cosmos: An Astrophotographic Adventure.”

O’Neil, a philosophy concentrator, explained his dual interests in astronomy and philosophy by paraphrasing Immanuel Kant’s quip about his fascination with the starry skies above him and the moral law within him.

“Those two items I immediately connect myself to. I immediately consider them relative to my existence,” O’Neil added. “The relationship is something I’m still trying to figure out, but I know those are two very clearly important things.”

Planning the trip

While all three trips met Dale’s original intentions and were personally meaningful, Lestition explained one more key factor each residential college office uses in selecting its winners: feasibility.

Occasionally, students will appeal to faculty for support after winning the Dale if their project very clearly correlates to one of the academic departments at the University. O’Neil decided to ask some assistance of an astronomy professor with whom he had taken a class in his sophomore year.

“He had a number of contacts on the ground,” O’Neil explained of his choice to approach the professor. “The technical aspects, if you’re meeting specific people like astronomers, you can’t just bump into them on the street.”

However, the administration of the University typically leaves students to plan their proposed trips with little guidance in order to promote the original adventuresome spirit of the award, according to Lestition.

“That’s what I loved about the trip was realizing that, every day, whatever I was doing was something that we had created,” Nuchtern said of the hours she spent before the trip researching organizations and contacting siblings of those with developmental disabilities. “It was all self-directed, and I think that made it really fulfilling.”

Dale, no Dale

As fulfilling as trips funded through the Dale often prove to be, Dean Lestition recognized the fact that successful applicants do face an obvious trade-off in terms of sacrificing a summer to personal ambitions rather than professional ones.

“I think the trend for most universities now — for many students at universities — is wanting internships earlier on than they used to,” Lestition explained. “Because of the tough job markets that students perceive, the desire for practical internships has increased.”

Each Dale winner I spoke with, though, enthusiastically encouraged prospective applicants to take the opportunity the award presents.

“There is nothing that I could have done that would have been better. I had to make it a reality or it wouldn’t have happened, whereas any other internship I could have done would have just given me a daily task,” Nuchtern said. “What matters is what you’re able to tell people about your experiences, even on a practical level.”

Furthermore, Kanchinadam recognized the reassurance she felt after her decision to spend the summer with her grandparents in India was supported by administrators and faculty through the prize.

“I think in a culture where all of your friends are getting internships it acts as a sort of a justification,” Kanchinadam explained. “It’s difficult to really stand against this current, which I feel more and more as an upperclassman. Of course, I could have tried to do something similar on my own, but it was just nice to have someone tell you that this is a good decision because it is a difficult one.”

Looking ahead

While each winner must write a few pages about the experience and give a brief speech at a dinner with other winners, administrators and the family of Dale himself, the requirement of continuing to draw significance out of each summer project is relatively relaxed.

“The nice thing about the Dale is that it’s not necessarily a means to an end; it’s just an end in itself,” O’Neil said of his experience photographing the cosmos. “You can have the photos and the trip for your own sake as opposed to publishing them. It was very much personal in that way.”

Some students do choose to apply their summer work to other projects related to their trip, even after its conclusion.

Nuchtern explained that she is currently working to compile a resource sheet of experiences she found were common among siblings of those with developmental disorders to send to those working in fields related to health and social care of young people, including doctors, therapists and schoolteachers.

Her desire to create such a resource stems from the frustratingly one-dimensional accounts she had read of having a sibling with special needs during her adolescence.

“It was really important to me that we were opening it up to people with a wide range of experiences,” Nuchtern said of her motivations in choosing interviewees. “Growing up we had read one narrative of being a sibling of someone with special needs, but nothing that gave credence to the fact that it’s just really complicated for most people.”

Nuchtern also intends to organize networks of college-aged siblings on university campuses across the country to give young adults access to peer groups that understand their unique family dynamics.

Kanchinadam plans to write a series of essays based on her experiences with her grandparents that will incorporate the recipes and culinary techniques she learned but also speak of her daily life abroad and the occasional adventures she had during her stay in India.

“The award turned into this wonderful opportunity to live with my grandparents,” Kanchinadam explained. “Now that I’ve stepped away from the project, I already feel everything crystallizing.”

However, applicants aren’t pressured to find practical applications for their projects. The guidelines of the award dictate only that the funding should facilitate a summer of personal growth and exploration.

“I think the Dale is very timely in the sense that it comes at a tender time in our Princeton undergraduate career, where we’ve certainly started to discover some of our interests, but at the same time, we haven’t locked ourselves into something so specific,” O’Neil said. “It allowed me to put the interests that my first couple years taught me into conversation with each other. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten that out of a formal internship.”

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