Emma Coley ’20 and Ben Press ’20 have won the University’s highest general undergraduate distinction — the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize. This honor is granted to the senior who best exemplifies outstanding scholarship, strength of character, and effective leadership skills.
The honor is named after Moses Taylor Pyne, Class of 1877, a long-time benefactor of the University and University trustee for 36 years beginning in 1884; his tenure lasted through the University presidencies of James McCosh; Francis Landey Patton; Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879; and John Grier Hibben, Class of 1882.
In addition to the prize, Pyne is also the namesake of the upperclass student dormitory Pyne Hall, as well as the M. Taylor Pyne Professorship, which is currently held by Chair of the Department of Art and Archaeology Michael Koortbojian.
Coley is a religion concentrator who is simultaneously pursuing certificates in ethnographic studies, humanistic studies, and urban studies.
Coley has been a leader across several campus organizations, including holding a co-chair position on the Pace Council for Civic Values and the University’s Religious Life Council, and she has played a role in creating the Princeton Asylum Project, a partnership between Catholic Charities Community Services, Archdiocese of New York, and the Office of Religious Life.
Coley said leadership to her was “holding and creating space for others,” a practice she has tried to maintain across her various involvements and said she is most proud of.
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, she expressed gratitude on being able to infuse her academic pursuits with her personal advocacy interests.
“One of the things I most appreciate about my Princeton experience that I hope comes through in my academic work is that the questions I ask academically are the questions I care deeply about personally, [like] what does being a good friend and neighbor have to tell us about justice and democracy?” Coley said.
“For me, that ability to think across those two lines — the personal and the political — has been something that I really learned here from my peers and my professors,” Coley continued in reference to her work facilitating discussions about spirituality, sexuality, and gender.
Coley said her reaction to receiving this top distinction was one of gratitude, but also considerate of Pyne’s role as one of the University’s largest benefactors who received much of his wealth from slave labor on plantations.
“Of course it was an honor — I’m really proud of the work I’ve done here — but also it’s caught up in the idea of ‘what types of work get recognized here on a campus like this?’” Coley said of the history of this award’s namesake.
Press is a history major, who is pursuing certificates in history and the practice of diplomacy, as well as medieval studies.
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Press was also grateful on the opportunities, both academically and personally, that the University has offered him and the significance of receiving this award.
“My first feeling is of gratitude, not only to the University for its decision to recognize me, but really to those around me, who I think this award really is owed to,” Press said.
“The amazing thing about Princeton is the freedom it gives you to do a million different things a million different ways,” he continued. “Princeton has been, for me, a journey of exploration in a lot of directions I would not have ever envisioned when I first came here, but a place of incredible freedom.”
It was this freedom to explore that resulted in Press’s switch from a prospective student of the Wilson School to a history concentrator. Press says it was after two lectures in a course titled the Civilization of the High Middle Ages that he decided to become a history major.
In recognition of the “strength of character” aspect of the award, Press refers to his work co-leading the Undergraduate Student Government’s Mental Health Task Force and helping to increase the accessibility of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) meetings, where he sat until January.
His leadership has spanned across many aspects of campus life, including work as an Orange Key Tour Guide, former deputy captain of the University Model UN team, co-chair of the Butler College Council, and a fellow with the Center for International Security Studies.
Among his many activities and involvements on campus, Press says he views his greatest accomplishments on campus to be varied in nature.
“In an institutional sense, I’m really proud of the efforts we’ve made on the Honor committee reform,” Press said. “I think it is something that has changed the system fundamentally for the better and something that will endure well past my time here, I hope.”
“In a personal sense, the thing I’m most proud of is that in my time here is that I’ve been able to make amazing friends with people who I treasure and I know I will be friends with for the rest of my life,” Press remarked.
“I’ve been able to help bring people together, within Butler, the Princeton community, and within my own friend groups,” he continued. “Being able to connect people and see new friendships form is something I just love.”
Press is unsure of what the future holds, but he mentioned an interest in working in a think tank in Washington D.C. or entering work related to U.S. foreign policy. He also discussed the possibility of furthering his schooling at graduate school for either political science or history.
Coley and Press will be recognized at the 2020 Alumni Day on Feb. 22.