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LENS initiative: A promising start with room for improvement

<h6>Genrietta Churbanova / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Genrietta Churbanova / The Daily Princetonian

Princeton recently announced its new Learning and Education Through Service (LENS) initiative, which “will allow all undergraduates to spend a summer focused on service and social impact work that engages with communities beyond campus.” LENS will work in coordination with the Center for Career Development and the Pace Center for Civic Engagement to connect students with the University’s existing service internship opportunities. 

The establishment of the LENS program is worthy of applause, and the program is a tangible manifestation of the University’s commitment to its unofficial motto “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” The LENS program will ensure that no Princeton undergraduate student will have to pass up an incredible nonprofit or service opportunity because the opportunity is unpaid.

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While LENS is a good start for increasing first-generation low-income (FLI) student representation in service internships, it does not go far enough. Opportunities facilitated by the University under LENS, such as the Summer Social Impact Internship (SSII) Fund, the John C. Bogle ’51 Fellows in Civic Service program, and the Liman Fellowship, all cap their funding at $6,000. While this sum might be sufficient for some non-FLI students who can rely on parental support during their internships, $6,000 is not sufficient for FLI students participating in these programs. 

To address this issue, Princeton should establish a partnership between the Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity and LENS in order to create FLI-specific funds to supplement LENS. For many students, a $6,000 funding cap on internships is sufficient, but the University should provide FLI students with the opportunity to secure up to $5000 in additional funding. With this additional funding, LENS opportunities can become a truly viable option for the Princeton FLI community. 

Nonprofit internships — 68.1 percent of them, to be exact —  go unpaid, according to a National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2021 survey. For comparison, only about 30 percent of for-profit internships are unpaid. For FLI students, it is difficult to choose an unpaid internship over a summer job or paid internship, even though many unpaid internships provide valuable service and learning experiences. 

I know that for myself and other FLI students, summers represent an important opportunity to save up for move-in costs and expenses that we will incur throughout the academic year. Therefore, accepting an unpaid internship is oftentimes completely out of the question for FLI students, which is reflected in the NACE data. Only about a quarter of students who accept unpaid internships are FLI. The majority of unpaid interns are white students, who on average come from wealthier backgrounds, when compared to their Black or Latinx peers. 

When one completes a summer internship outside of their hometown, one is likely to face significant travel costs in addition to basic living expenses for the eight to 10 weeks. Living in big cities is always expensive especially due to rent, and this has only gotten worse due to inflation. If a Princeton FLI student were to complete an internship in New York City or Washington D.C., for example, they might reasonably spend all of their Princeton funding on housing and living expenses. These students would then not have any funds left to save for the upcoming school year, unless they were to take on a job in addition to their full-time internship. FLI students should not have to take on extra work simply to avoid financial burdens while completing a nonprofit internship.

The University has taken an important first step with the creation of the LENS program. Now Princeton must make further improvements to increase accessibility to service internships for FLI students on campus. 

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Ndeye Thioubou is a columnist and sophomore from the Bronx, N.Y. She can be reached at nthioubou@princeton.edu.

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