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Holding public office, Princeton student dedicates himself to his hometown

Thomas Emens wins election
Thomas Emens at a campaign event. Photo taken by Christopher Rampacek.

It was almost midnight on November 8th when Thomas Emens ’25 received the election results. At just 20 years old, he had been voted onto the Jamesburg Borough Council.

“It was a special day,” he reminisced.

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As a Council member, he helps make decisions related to the borough’s finances, community recreation programs, sustainability plans, and more.

For Emens, who transferred to Princeton from Middlesex County College last fall, the election was a culmination of years of hard work and service dedicated to his hometown. Emens was admitted among the fourth cohort of transfer students since the program was restarted in 2018.

Emens’s service as a student is particularly notable on a campus where rates of public service have been discussed in recent years.  The 2022 Annual Report of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) showed that only 7 percent of SPIA graduates were planning to work in the public sector.

Jamesburg is a small close-knit town of about 6,000 in Middlesex County, New Jersey. A lifelong resident and the sixth generation of his family to call it home, Emens has been actively involved in his community from a young age.

“I've held public office since I was a senior in high school,” Emens said. 

When he was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Jamesburg Public Library at the age of 17, he became the youngest person in the borough’s history to hold public office.

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Joining a group of much older and more experienced trustees, Emens knew that he had a lot to learn. 

“When you arrive somewhere new, you don't walk in thinking that you know everything, because you don't,” he said. “It was a learning experience for me that first year.”

Emens started taking a more active role in library programming after a hurricane blew through Jamesburg and damaged the public library. It was a wake-up call for the library.

“We were falling stagnant with our programs and I said, ‘what can we do to change these things?’” Emens said.

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Emens reached out to older colleagues. He remembers them initially being unreceptive to his proposals, which he feels due to his age.

“I was looked at like an elephant in the room, like I didn't belong,” Emens said.

But eventually, Emens learned how to connect with his colleagues on the board. “The one thing that I learned is that we both wanted the community to call home. And we realized that that home had a place for both [older and younger board members].”

“Together, we passed unanimously the single biggest series of reforms to revitalize the library in over 40 years,” he said. “We, from top to bottom, overhauled their system of operations and we’ve rolled out a new series of programs including ESL tutoring and turning the downstairs into a community center.”

Emens pushed for more diversity and representation at the library. “I hired the borough's first transgender employee and our first Latina librarian. We now have the youngest and most diverse staff that we've ever had,” he said. “It looks like our community.”

Thomas’s work on the Board of Trustees at the library is what eventually led to him running for Jamesburg City Council on a ticket with resident Samantha Rampacek in 2022. 

Rampacek, another lifelong Jamesburg resident who served two terms on Jamesburg City Council, said, “I've always been really close with Thomas and when I was looking for somebody [to run with] he was one of the first people that came to mind.”

She continued, “I couldn't really imagine running with anybody else. He just shares this passion and drive, and I'm so happy that he was willing to do it.” 

Rampacek is 31 years old. As younger candidates, she and Emens geared their campaign towards the future with the slogan “Progress for Jamesburg.”

“Samantha and I represent the next generation of Jamesburg residents, and we are committed to moving our community forward,” Emens said. “I think a lot about my three nieces and my nephew, and who's going to be looking out for them.”

Rampacek also looked at the ticket’s youth as an asset. “I think that younger people sort of have a bad reputation for not having experience. But I think that we also bring a breath of fresh air and new ideas,” she said.  

Their campaigns were run by community members, who got to work putting up signs and knocking on doors. “I called it a campaign by the residents, for the residents,” Emens said. 

Emens’s fellow transfer students came out to canvas for them in Jamesburg.


Thomas Emens Campaigning
Thomas Emens campaigning with fellow Princeton University transfer students. Photo taken by Christopher Rampacek.


Sam McComb ’25, one of the students involved in the campaign, got a sense of Emens’s appeal.

“Talking to the residents there, it was clear that almost everyone seemed to know him personally from growing up and knew about his success,” McComb said. “[Residents] were proud of the work the library [Emens had] done, they’d noticed an improvement of the services and that really mattered.”  

McComb is an associate Humor editor for The Daily Princetonian.

When asked about balancing a political campaign and civic duties with the responsibilities of a Princeton student, Emens replied nonchalantly. 

“I've learned that it's all about time management. I've had moments where I've had multiple papers due, problem sets, lectures to go to, and precept. But if you plan everything out in such a way that you're able to meet your responsibilities back home and your responsibilities here, it works out.”

On campus, he is a member of the College Democrats, the academics committee of USG, and the Princeton Transfer Association, the latter of which he found especially supportive of his continued role in local politics.

“[The Princeton Transfer Association] wanted us to commit ourselves to our Princeton education, but also continue investing ourselves in what made us stand out beforehand,” Emens said. 

Emens sees connections between his academic life and his time on the council. 

He added, “My experiences back home professionally have enriched my Princeton education, and it's also been the same vice versa.”

He found that his microeconomics class related directly to his work with library finances in Jamesburg, and his politics classes helped him “understand the macro effects of our politics.”

At the same time, he noted, seeing politics at a local level gave him a new perspective.

McComb spoke on the importance of Emens’s services: “It shouldn't be forgotten that local politics really matters.”

Leela DuBois is a Features staff writer for the Daily Princetonian.

Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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