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Princeton students retreat to a castle in England for an oasis of open discussion

A green garden in front of a stone castle on a cloudy day.
Castle in England where Rose Castle society meets for reconciliation training.
Courtesy of Darren Millman

On the border of England and Scotland stands an 800-year-old pink-stoned castle. Once the home of the bishops of Carlisle, within its grandiose walls, visitors marvel at the lush gardens and intricately-decorated interiors.

Every fall break, Princeton undergraduates fill the castle with conversation. It transforms into a space to discuss society’s most contentious political issues such as abortion, affirmative action, and other topics. This year marked the third iteration of the Princeton Rose Castle Society’s (PRCS) trip to Cumbria, England, where the group meets to engage in reconciliation training centered in faith learning.


Those involved stressed the value of breaking out of echo chambers in a world that is increasingly polarized. Reconciliation is not about “letting bygones be bygones,” said Dean Alison L. Boden, the Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel and director of PRCS. Rather, she says, it is about “reckoning” and “learning to listen.” On the trip, students from a diversity of religious backgrounds engage in vulnerable discussions.

“If there’s an issue that’s really challenging, you take it and you dare to put it on the table,” Boden said.

PRCS is an organization that centers on themes of reconciliation and engaging in dialogue across people of different backgrounds, faiths, and beliefs. The group is sponsored by the Office of Religious Life (ORL). In 2019, a small cohort of Princeton students went on the first fall break trip to Cumbria — the home of the original Rose Castle Foundation. Princeton students can apply for membership to PRCS, which consists of the trip to the Rose Castle and several group dinners throughout the school year to continue conversations.

The Rose Castle Foundation, which owns the castle, was established to train future leaders in the face of conflict and polarization. 

Phoebe Dill, the Rose Castle Foundation’s program facilitator, told the ‘Prince’ in an email that their pedagogy “is deliberately designed to support young, faith-formed and faith-curious leaders discern their vocations and continue their formation as reconcilers and peace builders.” She says this is especially important on college campuses that “feel like a microcosm of the world.”

The state of open discourse on campuses has been under scrutiny. Conservatives have highlighted self-censorship or students declining to share their true beliefs, while those on the left have highlighted an apathetic environment, specifically at Princeton. The goal of the Rose Castle Foundation is to open up discussion in an environment that may not be found on campus.


Darren Milman ’27, who attended the trip this year, emphasized the “retreat-like aspect of Rose Castle.”

"[We were] able to get away and go to this really amazing place, and talk about really difficult topics,” he explained. 

Rahma Elsheikh ’25, who attended the trip in 2022, explained that the training consisted of speaking about reconciliation on a global scale and engaging in activities to learn about each other’s perspectives and backgrounds.

“Everyday we would all sit together in a room and we would be given information on what reconciliation looks like … it was cool to see that reconciliation on a grander scale can be brought back to the Princeton community," she said. Elsheikh added that the time together helped build trust and a sense of community amongst the students.

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This learning process of having vulnerable discussions with a new community is central to PRCS. Boden said that “in American culture, it’s like, don’t talk about religion and don’t talk about politics.”

PRCS is an opportunity that encourages students to talk directly about these topics, even if it is challenging. Students are able to apply these lessons to their personal lives outside of the trip as well. 

“It’s important for everyone to think about citizenship … it’s about how you live together with your roommate here. It’s about how you thrive in your community,” Dean Boden explained.

Through these conversations, students are instructed on specific dialogue strategies. Avi Chesler ’25, another student who went on the trip in 2022 and returned this past fall break as a student leader, wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that one of the most memorable techniques was the idea of reframing, or putting oneself in another’s shoes.

Despite the immense significance of the training, Chesler commented that the most valuable part of the trip was the residential aspect. “Just living in a space with people who are so different from me, eating meals together; it sounds kind of cliché but just breaking bread with people who are different from me … was the most important part for me.” 

Avi Chesler ’25 is a head Print Design editor for the ‘Prince.’

Diversity is one of the main factors of PRCS that appeal to students and draw them to apply. Before departing, Milman said he was most looking forward to learning how to have productive discourse with people from different backgrounds, and “to see firsthand how that has influenced the way that they think.”

A core premise of the training, and the Rose Castle Foundation as a whole, is learning to discuss issues with others from various religious backgrounds. The foundation prides itself on being a multi-faith organization and that aspect is core to their mission.

“While faith and religion can play a role in conflict, it is also a major catalyst for peace,” Dill noted.   

An example of this is a practice called Scriptural Reasoning, which PRCS members engage in during the trip. This technique gives students the opportunity to learn about other faiths through reading scriptures and reflecting on their different perspectives.

“[It] allowed us to understand the various moral bases that people might have when it comes to religion,“ Milman said. He added that it was helpful for him to consider “what role could God play in the ins and outs of this situation.” 

Trip participants visit various religious spaces, like temples or churches. Elsheikh, who is Muslim, said that they observed Friday prayers together with other trip participants and that it was “so beautiful to see people who were not Muslim be so eager to learn and understand the community.”

“It was very reaffirming,” she added, “[that] there are people who want to protect the rich culture and history that religion gives to the world.” 

Chesler, who is Jewish, wrote that “the way religion plays into Rose Castle can be very fluid.”

“Faith naturally comes up when we’re talking about our identities, and my connection to the Jewish community is super important to me,” he added. “The way faith shaped these people is the most important way faith played a role for me in this program.”

Other students agreed that it was valuable to learn about the influences of religion on identity, which is something that students were able to gain a deeper understanding of on the trip. Not only did students learn about how faith impacted others’ beliefs, but Milman said that it contributed to learning about themselves, such as “what our religions told us, to what extent we believed in our religions, how religious we were, [and] how did all of that contribute to who we are today.” He said that these factors encouraged him to better comprehend “inherent biases and lenses.” 

The experience of learning about oneself, reconciliation, and religion extends past the trip itself. As PRCS continues to grow, it is exploring other ways to expand its presence on campus. This coming year, Boden, the Dean of Religious Life, shared that PRCS will have a shortened version of the reconciliation training during Wintersession. Trainers from the Rose Castle Foundation will be visiting Princeton for a four-day workshop. 

Elsheikh shared that she was able to apply her PRCS training from the trip to her time leading Difference and Dialogue in Action (DDA), one of the orientation programs available at Princeton for first-year students. Elsheikh and the other DDA leaders used her reconciliation training to practice speaking about their identities and lives with each other.

“DDA is a very intimate environment, and I think that’s why reconciliation is particularly important to DDA since we’re asking students to be so vulnerable as part of some of their first experiences with Princeton,” she said.

According to Dill, this idea of vulnerability at college is especially important.

“Universities are extraordinary melting pots which attract young leaders from diverse backgrounds. Sites of education in part exist as spaces to ask questions, wrestle and seek wisdom, to model curiosity, to build relationships with those you may never have had the chance to engage with before,” she said.

Ava Gregory is a contributing Features writer for the ‘Prince.’

Jeannie Kim is a contributing Features writer for the ‘Prince.’

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