Over the past few weeks, I’ve created a program that has allowed students to nominate and then elect speakers to become candidates for the University to host on our behalf.
When I first posted the nomination form that began the trial program for the Student Speaker Initiative, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was surprised when the first nomination came after just a few seconds: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Being completely truthful, between my ignorance of contemporary literary works and the lack of capital letters, I was fairly certain that I had just been trolled. But after a quick Google search I found myself enthralled by the biography of an award-winning fiction writer born a continent and an ocean away with a life filled with experiences so very much different than my own.
It was at that moment that all my doubts vanished, and I no longer questioned that the students’ speaker series was precisely what we needed.
Fast forward three weeks with over three hundred additional submissions, and I was excited to be administering an electoral process that would determine which two of the top five speakers that received the most submissions I would present to the University as potential speakers to host.
I had high hopes after the nomination process. I had just run the gambit from surprise, to understanding, to belief after seeing the wide range of speaker suggested. There were artists, politicians, tech moguls, and presidential candidates — Danny DeVito received the most nominations.
What I wasn’t ready for was the seven hundred votes the program garnered in less than twenty-four hours. Now, with nearly twelve hundred votes received the potential has surpassed the expectations, and we stand on the cusp of making an indelible change to the University for the better.
Princeton students like myself have been waiting for an opportunity to voice their opinions on which speakers should be brought to campus. The desire for a student speaker series is apparent; but what is even more important is the need for such a program.
I have learned one thing for certain during my time here, and that is the wealth of Princeton University is undoubtedly contained within the people who comprise it. Time and again I have put myself out there only to be continuously rewarded by rich friendships with people who live half a world away. I have witnessed firsthand that the paths already travelled by others can inexorably change the direction that your own will take you.
Together, the diversity and brilliance to be found in our student body represent an untapped resource of knowledge and understanding the University can no longer afford to leave unrecognized. Once you’ve opened yourself up to the idea of a students’ speaker initiative, the realization that one hasn’t existed until now becomes truly shocking.
The vast majority of the unquestionably gifted students here aren’t to be found in the incredibly few positions that exist in student organizations which offer an opportunity to bring a speaker to campus. Not only that, but those already limited positions require an immense amount of effort to fill and maintain at a school that demands a lot from its students.
On countless occasions now I’ve found myself sitting in a small classroom or nearly empty auditorium listening to a speaker hosted by a student group whose advertisement for the event I was just barely lucky enough to have caught on my residential college listserv. The students work tirelessly for the rare opportunity to bring a speaker on campus while surrounded by enough resources to host 25,000 alumni every summer and heads of states with ease. What about the vast majority who aren’t leaders of student organizations?
This is a barrier that should not exist and only seeks to discourage the students from engaging with the speakers on campus. We go to lecture for the same reason that we go to hear a speaker give a talk: to learn. Choosing a speaker should be as easy as enrolling in your classes.
I’m proposing a permanent, web-based, semesterly program in which undergraduates will be able to elect the speakers they would most like to see on campus. Understanding that these events don’t happen overnight, the program would be administered for the following semester in order to provide sufficient time to both design and plan the event as well as find a date that works with the speaker’s schedule.
The students’ speaker series must be able to not only capture the drive students have to see a particular speaker, but also ensure that even the smallest voices on campus can become empowered. That is why we have proposed a ten-vote system so that every student can quantify their desire to see a given speaker. In addition, votes must roll over between semesters so that given enough time even small groups of friends have the chance to host someone.
Furthermore, it is essential that the program strives to create a conversation component right from its inception. Students should be able to pair two or more speakers in order to create dialogues that don’t exist but which we truly need. Learning occurs through synthesis; lasting progress occurs through compromise. The limitless possibilities of a “Create a Conversation” component make the Student Speaker Initiative simply too great an asset to campus for it to be left out of the program.
Moreover, the current model for the program does not request additional resources or funding from the University. We only ask that the many speaker series, faculty, and administrative departments on campus that host numerous speakers throughout the year offer to host a small number of speakers each semester selected by the student body. The program will even help locate and pair those speakers selected with the department or series that provide the most appropriate fit.
The path forward is surprisingly easy. We only need a small board comprised mostly of students with a few volunteers drawn from the many administrators on campus that have experience in event management and inviting speakers to campus, many of whom I know would be excited to support such a program. With a motivated group of computer science majors willing to make the website for their COS 333 assignment (message me if you’re interested), we will have nearly everything in place that we would need. With just a small commitment towards empowering students’ perspectives, we are ready to create a new tradition at Princeton that will be enjoyed by the many generations of students to come.
After receiving the submission nominating Adichie, I watched one of her particular poignant speeches, “The Danger of a Single Story.” The speech is a nineteen-minute-long argument for the students’ speaker series that is greater than any defense that I could provide. I found myself emboldened by her words: “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and person.”
For the nearly three centuries of its existence, no one has yet properly engaged with the University.
It’s high time that the University provides the opportunity for its students to select speakers for themselves. Not simply because we want it, but also because we need it. Because you need it.
After everything is said and done, I can be sure of one thing at least. On top of that endless stack of books that, like many of us, I swear I’ll get through this upcoming summer, sits “Half a Yellow Sun.” Had it not been for the suggestion of my fellow undergrad, I wouldn’t even be aware of what I was missing.
Tyler Eddy is a junior astrophysics major from Ontario, CAN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.