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Community auditors return to campus for the first time in two years

<h5>Community auditors in a lecture for MOL 214: Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology.</h5>
<h6>Leela DuBois / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Community auditors in a lecture for MOL 214: Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology.
Leela DuBois / The Daily Princetonian

“Nothing compares with live [courses.]”

For Alex Randall V ’73, an alum who has audited courses at the University for years, being back in the physical lecture hall offers a unique opportunity to continue his connection to Princeton that was denied to auditors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In the wake of reduced public health precautions this semester, the University has invited community auditors back to campus this semester for the first time in two years. Princeton’s Community Auditing Program (CAP) allows community members ages 18 and up to sit in on select Princeton classes as a “silent student,” according to Princeton’s Community and Regional Affairs Website.  

The past two years, the CAP was forced to move online, as auditors were allowed to attend online lectures over Zoom.

Sitting silently in the back of class, auditors go mostly unnoticed by undergraduate students. As Dylan Epstein-Gross ’26 reflected, “I don’t think I’ve noticed any [community auditors in class], but I also don’t know how I would tell.”

Even if students do notice older faces in the classroom, they aren’t always sure why they are there. 

“I guess maybe [there are auditors] in my EGR 152 [Foundations of Engineering: The Mathematics of Shape and Motion] class, because there’s a bunch of people sitting behind,” said Hazel Gupta ’26.

While undergraduates may seldom notice auditors in the room, the program provides a long-standing connection between Princeton and the community beyond FitzRandolph Gate.

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In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Gina Mastro, who serves as a a program coordinator for educational community outreach, shared, “The CAP helps the University pursue its service mission through educational outreach that enriches the lives of those seeking to expand their own knowledge.”

“It’s a community effort to extend the certain services of Princeton University to anybody who lives in this area,” said Terry Poon, a retired engineer and current community auditor.

The CAP is open to all high school graduates who live in New Jersey or within a 50 mile radius of the University. It invites auditors to attend classes on a non-credit basis for $200 per course. 

According to Poon, “The condition is we don’t interfere with the professor, we don’t speak up, we sit in the back. We don’t ask questions. And we don’t go to precepts.” 

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Poon and his friend Ray O’Donnell have been participating in the CAP for upwards of 10 years. Both of them spoke highly of the CAP.

Poon focused on the academic upside of the program: “I think most of us, or all of us, really enjoy all the classes we’ve taken. Because the professors are well known, famous, and established, and also because there’s no pressure on us. We don’t have to do any homework to sit there and listen.” 

For O’Donnell, a core benefit of the program are the social connections it fosters. “As Terry will attest, we’ve both made some friends here,” he said.

O’Donnell recalled how before the pandemic, he and Poon were a part of a group of about eight auditors who would all get lunch together before or after their classes on campus or elsewhere in the town of Princeton. 

“Plus, it’s a pleasant drive from where we live in the Clinton area,” O’Donnell added. “It’s a 20 mile drive cross country. So it's a pleasant day out, a nice opportunity.” 

Not every class is open to auditors. The program’s website notes that 125–150 classes are usually available to audit each semester.

“I think it’s up to the professors whether they want to participate and to decide how many seats will be open to auditors,“ Poon said.

Mastro confirmed this, saying, “[Auditor enrollment] is achieved by calculating 10 percent of the enrolled students per class and adding that number of auditors to the classroom as long as the instructor has the physical space to accommodate them.”

“Graduate courses, seminars, and classes with enrollment below 15 students are not eligible for community auditing,” she said.

The limited slots open to auditors result in a competitive sign up process. 

“There are some very popular programs with only two or three seats, so people really have to sit by the computer and hit the return button,” Poon said.

“A lot of us are retirees,” he explained, “so we’re not taking classes for any degree. We’re taking them for fun. So some of the popular classes are taken very quickly, arts and all that. Whereas a lot of the heavy duty technical courses are generally available, like quantum mechanics and advanced calculus.”

Poon also explained that there are two days of course registration. Residents of the town of Princeton and University alumni are able to sign up the first day, while those who live further away and did not graduate from Princeton have to wait until the next day.

“I understand why they focus on people who live in Princeton,” Poon said, “[but] a problem we face is that a lot of the popular courses are taken on day one, so we don't even have a shot on day two.”

Victor Bochicchio, also a retired engineer, is currently auditing ART 212: Revolutions and Avant-Gardes, which was his first choice: “I was lucky, I think, to get it.” 

O’Donnell was not so lucky and did not get one of the three slots in his first choice course, EAS 280: Nomadic Empires: From the Scythian Confederation to the Mongol Conquest. Instead, he is auditing MOL 214: Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology for the second time. 

Poon explained that “the professors who participate in this program tend to be the same ones. So after a while people like Ray and I are limited in what else is interesting to us although there are hundreds of other courses [not open to auditors] we would love to sign up for.”

According to Mastro, the program has “a loyal group of approximately 100 professors who welcome community auditors each semester.” She added that “some professors are unable to include auditors because their classes are too small, the topic is too technical, or there are multiple prerequisites or technical resources required to follow along with the course.”

While some aspects of MOL 214 has remained the same since the last time O’Donnell audited — including the professor teaching it — O’Donnell said “the field has changed a great deal over the last five to 10 years. Just in terms of the science involved.” Thus, the content of the course has evolved since the last time he audited it. 

O’Donnell also enjoys the course content because he had not studied molecular biology before auditing the course. 

“I’m a chemist by training, but I had never done any molecular biology as part of my own studies,” he shared. “So there was a lot of [molecular biology] in the public domain, in the various magazines I would read. But I would not be able to understand a lot of the molecular biology issues. And I found that after the first two or three lectures, I could comprehend this whole new area.” 

Randall has also retaken a course as an auditor, but in his case, he audited PSY 101: Introduction to Psychology, a course he first took 50 years ago as a first-year at the University. He even took it with the same professor, Joe Cooper. Just as O’Donnell noted that changes in the course have occurred because of scientific developments, Randall shared that some of the changes to PSY 101 were due to new developments in the understanding of neurotransmission. 

While O’Donnell said he is eager to connect the class he is auditing to his professional life, Poon, a retired structural engineer, said he takes the opposite approach. He has never audited an engineering class at Princeton and instead takes unrelated [classes] — “just for fun.” 

Community auditors are not allowed to participate in precepts or labs, and many don’t take issue with the restriction. Poon acknowledges that he may be able to learn more by going to precept but said, “I am not sure that we would enjoy meeting the requirements of attending a precept. You have to come prepared and read all the texts”

“I don’t think anybody is dying to be included in precept,” Bochioccio said, laughing. 

Both auditors emphasized the fact that they are participating in the CAP for fun rather than for a degree, and so while they enjoy the lectures, they don’t complete the assignments and reading that undergraduates do. 

While Randall agrees that it’s nice to be able to enjoy the classes without worrying about tests, a GPA, or writing papers, he has taken it upon himself to create an “auditor precept” for CLA 250, which focuses on the excavation of Pompeii. As a professor of Communications at the University of the Virgin Islands, organizing a precept is a familiar experience for him. 

“I just went to the board and wrote ‘auditor precept will meet here after class’ and after the class all 12 auditors were waiting there. The auditor precept is now composed of a group of 5–6 auditors who meet every Monday. Every one of them has been to Pompeii. So all of us have not just what we heard in class, but what we saw. It’s incredibly rich discussion,” he said. 

Poon recalls that he first heard about the CAP 10 years ago from a friend who had participated in it. In the years since, he and O’Donnell have spread the word. 

“[Bochicchio] knows about it through [O’Donnell]. And then a few of my neighbors knew about it from me,” Poon said, and then joked — “To the point where we’re starting to regret it. Because we have to compete with so many more people for the popular courses.” 

The CAP has grown immensely over the years and according to Mastro, the program now has “over 2,000 auditors, with between 400–600 registering for classes each semester.” 

“It’s fantastic – going into a room and listening to brilliant people talk about interesting things about which they know so much,” Randall said of the program. 

He’s currently auditing two courses at Princeton but, for him, it’s not enough: “I’d do five this semester if they let us.” 

Leela DuBois is a Features contributor at The Daily Princetonian. Please direct any corrections to corrections@dailyprincetonian.com.

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