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‘The Princeton I wanted to join’: The evolution of Wintersession

An ice sculpture of a tiger with the words "Winter session" on it.
An ice sculpture on Cannon Green marks the kick-off of Wintersession 2023
Courtesy of Tori Repp/Fotobuddy

In 2014, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) Senate hosted the first-ever Wintersession, where undergraduate students had the opportunity to enroll in informal classes between the end of fall term exams and the beginning of the spring semester. 

Over the past nine years, this system has evolved, changed leadership, and expanded, while retaining its original mission of providing free, accessible programming to all students. This winter break, Princeton undergraduates, graduate students, staff, and faculty are invited on campus from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 to participate in the third annual Wintersession program sponsored by the Office of Campus Engagement (OCE).

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“It’s very rare that you, as a student at a historic institution, get to create something that becomes lasting way beyond yourself. [Wintersession] could really improve the lives of [our] fellow classmates around [us] for future generations to come,” said Laura Du ’14, one of the USG representatives who proposed the platform. 

Creating USG Wintersession

Prior to the restructuring of Princeton’s calendar in the academic year 2020–2021, fall term exams were held at the conclusion of winter break in January. Following exams, students had the option of returning home or remaining on campus during a one-week Intersession break. 

Time and financial constraints limited some students’ abilities to return home over break. Du and two other U-Councilors, Katherine Clifton ’15 and Elan Kugelmass ’14, with support from USG President Shawon Jackson ’15 took note of these challenges and set out to create an alternative.

“If you weren’t in a group that was touring — like a performing arts group — or part of a club that had a retreat at that time, there wasn’t much programming happening on campus. It’s kind of crazy to think about, a week that’s quieter that happens to overlap with the week when students have the most time. It seemed like this mismatch that we wanted to address,” Clifton explained.

Inspired by enrichment programming at other institutions such as Williams College, the team of U-Councilors began work on a Princeton-specific model.

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“When we did a couple of focus groups with students, they were interested in being able to lead their own as well as take other people’s offerings," Clifton said. “So that’s why we landed on this hodgepodge model,” with students able to enroll in multiple informal sessions led by others on campus. 

Clifton also shared that their Wintersession model was in part a product of USG’s budget constraints, though Du noted that the team was able to provide modest compensation to facilitators.

“Our [USG] funding was pretty small. I mean, most of these sessions didn’t require anything but space and people’s time. I remember there was a Magic 101 [offering], and it was ‘bring your own card deck’ — pretty DIY,” Clifton recalled. 

Despite Wintersession’s limited budget and advertising at the time, the program with its tagline, “Discover a hobby. Meet other Princetonians. Learn something new,” seemed to resonate with the student body.

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The sponsors’ pilot goal was for 200 students to sign up. When they launched it via a school-wide email, Du said, the numbers “were just so immediate and then they kept climbing. We had roughly 20% of the student body sign up to be involved.”

Du shared that the freedom to explore without being assessed on performance was key to the pilot’s success, particularly given the context of grade deflation.

“Everyone who goes to Princeton is so self motivated — that’s part of how everyone got there. You just want to make sure that along the way, you don’t lose that joy of learning as well.”

Following widespread community satisfaction from the first event, Wintersession became an ongoing USG project through 2020.

“It wasn’t controversial, you know,” Clifton added. “I don't remember there being institutional pushback.”

Calendar conversations

Amid complaints about the timing of fall semester final exams, the University’s Task Force on General Education issued a report featuring recommendations on restructuring the academic calendar in October 2016. 

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Deputy Dean of the College Elizabeth Colagiuri GS ’99 shared that the Task Force “initially suggested creating a ‘J-term’ that would offer credit-bearing courses.”

Colagiuri staffed the Ad Hoc Committee on Calendar Reform, which met from March 2017 to March 2018, as well as a calendar reform steering committee tasked with implementing the reforms between 2018 and 2020. Restructuring the schedule of fall final exams and axing the one-week Intersession period “created the space for a two-week Wintersession” at the end of winter break, Colagiuri noted. 

“There was a question of, well, what do we do in this new period?” OCE Executive Director Judy Jarvis explained in an interview with the ‘Prince.’

As part of this work, the subcommittee conducted surveys and held focus groups among the Princeton community. OCE states “almost two-thirds of undergraduates and over half of graduate students polled during calendar reform research report[ed] that they might or definitely would participate in a two-week Wintersession.”

“It was pretty clear that faculty, undergraduate students and graduate students [overwhelmingly] did not want something graded [or] something mandatory,” Jarvis said. 

While there was originally no institutional pushback to Wintersesssion, some faculty had concerns over pushing forward the academic year’s start date — the ‘Prince’ reported in 2018 that Professor Elizabeth Harman said the Wintersession model would be “a huge loss to faculty productivity.”

Nonetheless, a majority of University faculty voted to approve the calendar reform proposal on April 23, 2018, with calendar changes taking effect the 2020–2021 academic year. 

A new office for Wintersession

To institute this programming on a University-wide scale, OCE (previously named the Office of Wintersession and Campus Engagement) was instituted in 2019 with “the core goals of designing and launching the new Wintersession initiative, as well as offering other avenues for meaningful cross-campus engagement” such as Princeton Research Day.

Multiple USG members favored this transition, including Andres Larrieu ’23, who led the administrative and logistical programming for USG Wintersession 2020.

“The idea for Wintersession is wonderful. Unfortunately, you’re leaving it in the hands of overstressed undergraduate students. Some of us can be really good at organizing, but we still have our attention split in many different directions,” Larrieu said.

By housing Wintersession within a campus office, the program gained access to expanded University resources along with a staff of dedicated professionals. OCE is headed by Jarvis, who had experience directing the LGBT Center (now Gender + Sexuality Resource Center). In addition to Jarvis, the office is led by 3 full-time staff and supported by five Campus Engagement Student Fellows.

“When I was hired [in] September 2019, I had sort of the sketch: it’s going to be two weeks, it’s going to be free, it’s going to be non-mandatory, it’s going to be non-graded. Go! It was actually really wonderful to have the freedom to figure out through further research working with students, staff and faculty — what shape did we want? So we had the kind of parameters, but what shape did we want it to be?” Jarvis explained.

OCE research took the form of site visits in 2020 to peer institutions including Amherst College and MIT. On campus, OCE worked closely to learn from leaders of Wintersession 2019 and 2020 while also hosting focus groups.

The first Wintersession Advisory Committee, which Larrieu participated in, also met to steer the transition process and continues to oversee programming across the Proposals, Evening Events, and Trips teams. Their work amounted to a smooth changeover of leadership from USG to OCE.

The mission of Wintersession is today listed online as the creation of “shared experiences for all undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff to step away from their day-to-day and explore intriguing opportunities that promote connection and growth beyond the resume.”

“Maybe some specific features are new, but at its core, [Wintersession’s] mission statement hasn't really changed,” Larrieu said.

Impact of COVID-19

University-wide Wintersession efforts, much like other programming on campus, have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, Wintersession’s programming was entirely virtual. The following year was impacted by the rise of the Omicron variant and was shifted to a hybrid model, where 41 percent of offerings were virtual.

In the wake of two impacted years, Wintersession 2023 will, in many ways, serve as a test run for annual programming in years to come. For the first time, the vast majority (93 percent) of offerings will be in person.

“This is the first Wintersession we’re going to have that’s going to follow the vision exactly, because of less COVID restraints and everything,” OCE Student Fellow Gil Joseph ’25 explained. “So, we are betting a lot on this year’s edition to see if people are as excited as we are about the idea.” 

Mutemwa Masheke ’23 has been working at OCE since 2021. His passion for Wintersession lies in its opportunity for entrepreneurship and its celebration of Princeton’s diverse student body.

“Since the pandemic, to be honest, I feel like Princeton has gotten a little boring. There were a lot of events and cultural things that the student body had pre-COVID that were lost along the way by spending a year and a half away from campus,” Masheke shared. 

Choice of programming

According to Jarvis, Wintersession 2023 will include about 517 total offerings, “a significant increase from the 414 offerings last year,” led by 404 unique facilitators. As of Jan. 23, 4,328 people have registered to participate in these sessions.

OCE-led keynote events are a new feature of the University-wide Wintersession. One such offering during Wintersession 2023 includes “Beyond the Resume with Michaela Coel,” moderated by Masheke. In alignment with Wintersession’s mission, the conversation will feature the Emmy and BAFTA-winning actress and writer’s thoughts on defining oneself apart from their professional identities.

Though many workshops offered throughout the two-week period are, in fact, ‘How-to’ courses in beginner- and intermediate-level hobbies, skills, and niche interest areas, OCE offers practical and educational courses as well. These professional growth options include programming exercises in Python and R and senior thesis boot camps.

“The idea isn’t that Wintersession is only joy and silliness,” Jarvis added. “The idea is that it’s ‘choose your own adventure.’”

Larrieu agreed, emphasizing that these opportunities are still conducive to a healthy, exploratory Wintersession experience. “You’re not going to spend 16 hours coding straight. You’re going to spend maybe two or three hours a day, and then you’re going to go do something else,” he said.

Wintersession’s mission aims to “remix campus in a different way,” Jarvis explained. “It doesn’t have to be, ‘Well the person with the PhD is going to be at the front of the classroom.’” 

Financial accessibility as a goal

“Our goal is never to get 100 percent participation. Our goal is for the people who want to do Wintersession, can they do it and do they have a good time?” Jarvis explained.

To do this, Jarvis explained that the team has “tried to make Wintersession work for every single population of people. It was loud and clear from the research that people wanted a really flexible Wintersession.”

Despite many changes to Wintersession’s programming over the years, it has remained free for all participants. Nemo Newman ’23, OCE’s first student hire, commented on the importance of this openness.

“As an FLI [first-generation, lower-income] student, that’s also a factor in why I like Wintersession so much, because it gives everybody equal access, regardless of background,” they explained. “Everything’s free. You can propose a trip or an event that you want to see happen, and you'll get funding for it. I think that it’s really impactful because there is no barrier to entry in any of the experiences or opportunities that we have. If you want to go on this thing, you sign up.”

Including graduate students

While Clifton and Du explained that USG Wintersession was open from the beginning to graduate students, their participation was often limited due to the nature of advertising, which took place primarily through emails sent by the USG President. As Wintersession has continued to develop, expanding graduate student participation has been a priority.

Deepika Bhatnagar, a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology, has served on the Wintersession Advisory Committee since March 2022. 

Though Bhatnagar was late to find out about last year’s Wintersession, she was able to sign-up for a few events at the last minute, including “Dumplings for Dinner” taught by award-winning Chef Melissa King. Impressed by the offerings, Bhatnagar attended an OCE focus group to see how she could get more involved with Wintersession programming. 

“People generally know that Wintersession is an opportunity that’s available to them as a graduate student,” said Bhatnagar. “But, I think since it’s relatively new, not all grad students are aware of the extent to which they can participate.”

Former Graduate Student Government (GSG) President Andrew Finn echoed Bhatnagar’s assessment of the graduate student response to programming. 

As another member of the Wintersession Advisory Committee, he also highlighted the importance of advertising to graduate students as a specific demographic, noting that they are often siloed within their departments. Ongoing collaborations between OCE and GSG, including efforts to publicize the availability of free food for participants, are beginning to shift Wintersession into the space of graduate conversations.

“Now, so many people I talk to are really looking forward to it,” Finn said. “They’re refreshing the page to sign up right away for a lot of sessions, and they’re just really excited by all the offerings.”

What’s next for Wintersession?

As Wintersession becomes a more established program on campus, OCE hopes to continue evolving in line with the office’s entrepreneurial spirit. 

“I'm hoping that the ‘Beyond the Resume’ event that we’re currently planning will be a template for many more student partnerships and keynote events, where different student organizations can submit proposals for speakers relevant to their community,” Masheke explained. 

While the number of registration slots per offering is limited based on facilitators’ comfort, the team hopes to continue expanding the number of trips, which have been among the most popular offerings. 

“I’ve had some academic departments reach out over the year and say that they may want to put some trips, including international trips, into this time period," Jarvis noted. “I think, increasingly, you will see trips that go further afield — there just has to be more planning, more people involved.” 

Finn said he hopes to see other institutions look to Wintersession as a model for creating greater work-life balance among graduate students. Additionally, he encourages more graduate students to step into a facilitator role to share their diverse interests and “[step] outside of what they’ll do in a typical day to day.”

For Newman, building upon collaborations with community partners such as the Princeton Arts Council is an important next step. While they acknowledged that the campus-centric mission of Wintersession means that those not directly affiliated with the University will likely never be the core demographic, there are untapped opportunities to integrate the two groups.

“Doing more to wash away the lines between Princeton University and Princeton town is something that I really hope continues to occur during the years to come,” they said.

Regardless of potential changes, Wintersession organizers reflected on the unique experience it provides — both as a program that sets Princeton apart from other institutions and as a novel learning opportunity within the University.

“I usually describe it as the Princeton I wanted to join,” said Joseph. “I think everyone should be obsessed with Wintersession, honestly.”

Sejal Goud is the associate Features editor for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any correction requests to corrections@dailyprincetonian.com.

Gia Musselwhite is an assistant Features editor for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any correction requests to corrections@dailyprincetonian.com.

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