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Some first-years, orientation leaders critique Community Action orientation program

"It frankly felt like it was for optics more than anything," one CA leader said.

<h6>A member of the Class of 2023 walks across a bridge at the Princeton-Blairstown Center as part of their Community Action trip.</h6>
<h6>Photo Credit: Zachary Shevin / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
A member of the Class of 2023 walks across a bridge at the Princeton-Blairstown Center as part of their Community Action trip.
Photo Credit: Zachary Shevin / The Daily Princetonian

In a year with a particularly high number of Community Action participants, many students expressed concerns about the orientation program. For some, the purportedly service-focused opportunity fell short of its stated mission — and students said they left feeling unfulfilled.

Community Action is one of three mandatory small-group orientation experiences, organized by the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement. With the Class of 2026 making up the largest first-year class in the University’s history, CA experienced an uptick from around 500 first-year participants last year to 698 this year.

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On Aug. 28, ten CA groups traveled to Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC) as part of their orientation, focusing on the theme of education. But the trip proved a far cry from what many in the group expected. The frustration came to a head during a group presentation among their peers at PBC, when some members of CA Group 18 voiced their concerns with the week’s programming. 

“The title of Community Action is just that — a title,” a student said in a speech co-written with other first-years, according to a recording obtained by The Daily Princetonian.

“There is something important that needs to be recognized, and if it hasn’t been recognized by us then it has certainly been recognized by those who remain in the same positions long after we leave,” the students added during the presentation. “We need to recognize that two hours of subpar community service is not sufficient to start legitimate change.”

Group 18 was one of 60 CA groups organized this year, each focusing on specific sub-themes within the general categories of Education, Sustainability, and Essential Needs and Well-Being of Refugees. Central to planning the groups were Kasey Shao ’25, Amaya Dressler ’25, and Grace Kim ’25, who served as the 2022–23 CA fellows for the Education, Sustainability, and Essential Needs themes, respectively.

“In the past there were 500 students total with 6–7 fellows. This year, the three of us were in charge of 820 students,” Shao said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ (The fellows oversaw 698 first-year students and 113 student leaders.)

When asked about the specific student concerns about CA detailed in this report, CA Program Director Sara Gruppo provided a general statement:

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“I am grateful when students and partners can share openly and honestly about their experiences,” Gruppo wrote in an email. “In Community Action we acknowledge when we fall short of our goals, celebrate when we reach them, and always grow more together from both experiences. We appreciate when CA leaders and participants share their feedback with us and welcome continuing the conversation.”

From June to the start of orientation in late August, the CA fellows were responsible for planning virtually every aspect of CA — researching their themes, finding community partners, and planning housing and transportation to off-campus sites — planning 20 schedules each.

Throughout they said they were guided by a commitment to CA’s multifaceted goals. As Shao put it, “CA is meant to provide a wonderful experience, orient [first-years] to the Princeton community, and create community within themselves.”

“There was a push and pull between coordinating service and community bonding,” Dressler added. “The goal was also to ‘stick and bond’ them to their peers.”

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‘I think we were more of a burden than a help’

Abraham Jacobs ’26, one member of Group 18, told the ‘Prince’ that of the 10 CA groups at PBC, only two left the Center to engage with community partners.

Fourteen students in Group 18, whose sub-theme within the Education category was “Leadership through Mentorship,” rode a charter bus from Blairstown, N.J. to Trenton, a two-and-a-half hour trip. Half of the group visited Anchor House, which hosts a transitional living program for at-risk youth in Trenton, while the other half traveled to the organization’s food pantry.

“They asked us to go through and see if there was any expired food and organize it,” Genevieve Shutt ’26 said. “There were a lot of sanitary and hygiene products, but not a lot of food. And a lot of the food was expired, but we were told not to throw it out because they couldn’t spare to lose it.”

Eshaan Govil ’26 said that he perceived the group’s impact at Anchor House as very minimal. “We were thinking with the cost of the bus, [and] if we had just donated that money to Anchor House, it would have been so much more useful,” he said.

Some members of the group that stayed at Anchor House said they felt as though they were in the way of the Anchor House staff. 

“We go inside and we’re asking ‘What do you want us to do?’ They think for a while and come up with a closet. We went to this closet and it was mostly already organized,” Jacobs said. “So after we try to help with that, we go back and end up interrupting a conversation with an at-risk teen. We were then told to pull out some weeds — we couldn’t find any.”

“At one point after asking for the third time what chores we could do and interrupting, we’re looking at each other and we think ‘we should leave,’” Jacobs added.

Paul-Louis Biondi ’24, one of the group’s two CA leaders, felt similarly: “I think we were more of a burden than a help.”

During CA leader training, Biondi was told that the program was about engaging in informed service. 

“The way I understood CA is that we’d be working with partners and that we’d be coming informed into communities and really try to engage actively in a productive way,” they stated.

In practice, however, Biondi said they felt the experience did not actually engage students in community service.

“It was like a step-in, step-out model of service without ever actually learning or trying to put that community first over your own desires,” they said. “It frankly felt like it was for optics more than anything.”

‘There was little opportunity to do service’

Other CA groups took issue with the extent of their service work, and several students echoed Biondi’s sentiments that the orientation programming felt like “optics.” Members of CA Groups 1–3, in the Arts sub-theme of Education, visited Trenton Central High School where they were met with film cameras and a performance by the high school’s band. 

While Princeton students ate lunch with high school students, a film crew began to film their interactions, the students said. Alex Tubridy, a Community Action program coordinator, told the ‘Prince’ that the film crew was arranged by Trenton Central. However, Gwen McNamara, Assistant Director of Communications for the Pace Center, later clarified to the ‘Prince’ in an email that the film crew was arranged by the University.

Students also raised concerns around inclusion in the acts of service. While the service aspect of the trip was to play with the high school student band, only around eight out of the 40 CA members could play an instrument and brought one with them, according to Beth Villaruz ’24, a CA leader.

“The rest of us watched,” Villaruz said. “Overall, there was little opportunity to do service.”

The CA fellows attributed some of the challenges of coordinating CA due its inherent unpredictability. 

“One thing I realized is not everything would be under our control,” Kim, one of the fellows, said.

Ten groups in the Sustainability theme were sent to the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) for their CA experience. In preparation to return to campus, one of three buses broke down. As a result, two groups were unable to leave PEEC until four hours after they were told that they would.

While the first-years of the group worried about missing upcoming orientation events on campus, CA leader Seth Kahn ’25 said he felt assured by the response of Pace Center leadership.

“We were in constant communication with the command center on campus,” he said. “The CA leadership dealt with it well.”

Pace Center leadership said they hoped that this year was an improvement from the past two years, when orientation programming was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Students wanted to return in person,” Tubridy said. “Ultimately, this program is guided by students and their feedback.”

Despite their disappointment with their CA experiences, members of Group 18 said they were ultimately grateful to have gotten to know their peers through the experience.

“I think that really bonded us together because we found, even in [our disagreements], we understood where [each other is] coming from,” Govil said.

Eden Teshome is an Associate Podcast Editor at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at edenteshome@princeton.edu or on Twitter @edteshome.

Correction: The film crew at Trenton Central High School was arranged by the University, not by Trenton Central, according to corrected information shared with the ‘Prince.’ 

This article previously stated there were 20 CA groups. In fact, there were 60 groups, with each fellow overseeing 20 groups. The ‘Prince’ regrets this error.

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