The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.
Last week I published an article on the 1903 Prize (the award granted to the senior who “has done the most for their class”), encouraging seniors not to default to nominating the class president, who had won it for 20 years in a row, but to instead consider nominating an “everyday hero.” Many people reached out to me about my piece, explaining that the current class president, Emma Parish ’21, is definitely deserving of the award due to her tireless work in Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and other areas of campus life. This response made me question what it means to win an award at Princeton. What does it mean to be recognized?
Upon further contemplation, I realized two things. One, that the 1903 Prize fails to meaningfully capture the personal qualities of the winner. To make the award meaningful, it should be redesigned to recognize the many ways to contribute to the University outside of student government. Two, the insistence that Parish be recognized is indicative of a larger problem: we need to recognize USG officials regularly, outside of the formal awards process.
I still find something suspicious about the fact that only the class president has won the award for 20 consecutive years, as opposed to another class officer, another USG officer, or any person at all that could put in close to the amount of work. After my previous article, many seniors reached out to me telling me that they didn’t know who to nominate, but that they would now nominate their “everyday hero.” This suggests to me that these people, and likely many more, were initially not going to vote for candidates based on merit, but on confusion over who might fit the description.
Given the qualification being “doing the most for their class,” I suspect that many people have historically nominated the class president because it makes sense that the class president has likely done the most for their class, not because they are considering what the class president actually does. This process fails to distinguish between subpar and extraordinary individuals, i.e., it does not evaluate the individual’s merits. The 1903 Prize, as it stands now, is not competitive enough to fully recognize the efforts or qualities of its winners, especially if we simply choose the class president by virtue of their job.
To make the prize meaningful as a distinction, we would need to make explicit that “doing the most” does not entail solely student governmental work, and we need to allow for multiple winners to allow the diversity of contributions to be represented.
I previously noted how my roommate contributed the most by being an exemplary model during a time of crisis, but people can also contribute to their class through activism, arts, scholarship, innovation, leadership, compassion, service, or other ways. These potential qualities should be made explicit in the award description, so students are not solely oriented towards USG officeholders.
While this makes it fairly similar to the Spirit of Princeton award, the fact that it is restricted to seniors, involves only the senior class in the nomination process, and does not require a detailed nomination letter makes the 1903 Prize — and its analogue for “doing the most for Princeton” entirely — and the 1901 Medal distinct in their own right.
When making these different qualities explicit, we suddenly not only have a much wider pool of students to consider, but we also consider our pre-existing candidates more fully. Outside of USG, Parish is certainly an “everyday hero” herself. She is an RCA who runs two zee groups. She is a Vote100 fellow. She has never treated me anything less than the best in the few interactions I’ve had with her, and her friends only speak well of her, too.
Yet, even if Parish is an “everyday hero” on top of her work as the class president (especially with the extra responsibilities that come with running the class government during the pandemic), it would seem that the designation of “class president” still automatically trumps the qualifications of every other candidate. In order to avoid the continued domination of the class president, we ought to have multiple winners. This way, we can still continue to recognize the extraordinary work and qualities of the class president, while not erasing recognition of other potential ways of contributing to the University.
Even after working out how the nomination process for the 1903 Prize should be improved, I still can’t help but wonder why many people so strongly insisted that Parish deserved to win the 1903 Prize. It then struck me that outside of the formal awards process, USG officers are not recognized as much as they should be, and they ought to be recognized more often through informal means.
We put too much stock on these prestigious awards to recognize people who ought to be recognized more often. For USG officers who work countless tough hours and deal with endless angry emails, these awards may serve as much-needed recognition. However, there are only so many awards, and it only happens once.
Say that the class vice president does about 90 percent of the total work as the class president does. Does the class vice president not also deserve some recognition, even if they haven’t worked as much as the class president? Also, why should they have to wait for the end of their senior year to get recognition, if at all?
One solution could be to create more awards, especially ones that are distributed throughout different class years, so that everyone who deserves an award has a chance to get one. However, I realize that would take time to implement. Let’s start a new tradition today: thank your USG officers at the end of every school year.
I have created a Google Jamboard for all of the Class of 2021 officers, for the undergraduate student body to express their gratitude, especially for the class officers’ work adapting to the changing situation of the pandemic. They have worked long hours organizing Tigers in Town events, Commencement, virtual events, and generally dealing with what I can only see is a logistical nightmare. Please give them your thanks by writing them a thoughtful message, or even drawing a nice picture.
My hope is to create Jamboards for the rest of the USG officers as well. Maybe not everyone can receive an award, but everyone can at least receive gratitude, and hopefully over a greater period of time. Perhaps people do not give thanks enough because there are no platforms to incline people toward doing so, but I hope this Jamboard will be a first step towards rectifying that.
I end this piece with skepticism towards the University’s traditions. The fact that traditions have existed for so long is not a testament to their perfection over many years, but perhaps to the fact that we have not bothered to closely examine and improve them. Even something as seemingly innocuous as writing in a senior’s name for the 1903 Prize has its issues. We should seek to refine traditions and create new ones in hopes of creating a better Princeton that recognizes people for what they are worth.
Daniel Te is a senior in the philosophy department from Woodbridge, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.