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‘Just for the sake of doing it’: Princeton seniors reflect on unique summers funded by Dale Award

On the left, a student gardens in a field. She is holding a box of picked plants. On the right, a student stands between two adults in front of a camper and left of a Honda Pilot. There is a forest in the background.
Students participate in their projects funded by Dale awards in 2022.
Photo courtesy of Reina Coulibaly '24 and Oscar Wu Platt '24.

“If you had $6,000 and you [had] three months with no rules, what would you do?” This is the challenge that Aaron Ventresca ’24 has for the Class of 2026. 

As a past recipient of the Martin A. Dale ’53 Summer Award, Ventresca used the time between his sophomore and junior years to throw himself into the craft of writing and composing an original musical, while others in his cohort used the opportunity to execute their own creative proposals — including Indonesian artmaking in a self-converted mobile art studio, a deep dive into Chinese dance, and a reconnection with the spiritual roots of yoga.


The Martin A. Dale ’53 Summer Award is an application-based award accompanied by a $6,000 stipend to support rising juniors pursuing projects that promote “personal growth, foster independence, creativity and leadership skills, and broaden or deepen some area of special interest.” The award is open to all majors and requires that a project take at least eight weeks of the summer to complete. 

Endowed by Martin A. Dale ’53, Dale sought to recreate the generous opportunities afforded to him in his undergraduate years by the Cane Scholarship for graduates of New Jersey public schools. In 1992, he established the summer award program, which has funded worthy project proposals every year since. Later, in 1997, he also supported the creation of the postgraduate Martin A. Dale Fellowship, which is usually awarded annually to one member of the senior class.

Associate Dean for Academic Advising Cecily Swanson coordinates the central management of the award, collaborating with residential college assistant deans to support students in crafting proposals. Dean Swanson shared insights about the application process and what the selection committees look for in candidates.

“Exciting proposals capture the student’s enthusiasm for their project and use details to illustrate why the project will catalyze self-discovery and personal growth,” Swanson explained in an email to The Daily Princetonian. “Proposals stand out when they make a case for why the project exceeds the bounds of other formalized opportunities.”

“Applications are reviewed by each college, [and] finalists are invited to interview (with an interview committee selected by the college, including the assistant dean for studies, the college’s dean, and other invited interviewers, often the faculty member in residence),” Swanson added. Following the completion of interviews, the assistant deans and Swanson discuss to determine award winners.

With the Jan. 26 deadline fast approaching, the ‘Prince’ spoke with four recipients of the award, who are now seniors, and asked them to reflect on their Dale project proposals, their 2022 summers, and their advice for future applicants. 



Oscar Wu Platt ’24 spent his Dale summer on a cross-country road trip in the “Batikmobile” — a mobile art studio converted from his parents’ Honda Pilot that doubled as a camper van, complete with a bed and kitchen.

The inspiration for his project proposal came from the Indonesian art technique, batik, which he learned during his Bridge Year in 2018. Hoping to explore the technique further, he proposed a summer of cloth dyeing on the road.

“The Dale Award was always on my radar, since freshman year, just based on how unique of an opportunity it is,” Platt recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘how can I use this opportunity to make my dreams come true?’”

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“I took the Dale award as a chance to combine many different parts of my identity and interests,” Platt continued. “I consider myself to be a tinkerer, and I enjoy art. I like making things and taking things apart.”

After setting his sights on a summer of art and van life, Platt set to work on making his proposal a reality. He spent the first 10 days of summer converting the van before beginning his solo cross-country road trip.

Driving from his home in New York to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, Platt stopped briefly in Omaha, Neb., Denver, Colo. and Salt Lake City, Utah, to visit friends and family. He also spent two weeks in Glacier National Park before settling in the Pacific Northwest for the majority of his summer excursion.

“I met a lot of people,” Platt recounted. “The car was a big conversation starter.”

In Washington, he shared a campsite with a retired couple. The three traded stories and passed time together.

“They became a cool, unexpected part of my experience in the end,” Platt said.

After spending a summer doing batik in the back of his parents’ tricked-out van, Platt came away with a new appreciation for the art form he was introduced to only years prior. In the hopes of continuing his artistic endeavors at Princeton, he set up a small batik station in the studio area of 185 Nassau Street, which houses the Program in Visual Arts.

“My sophomore summer gave me the confidence and proof that I can live by myself,” Platt said. “I could’ve done it for another summer easily.”

​​Exploration of the Multiethnic Forms of Chinese Dance

Julia Chang ’24 took an entirely different approach with her summer stipend.

Growing up as a dancer, Chang was always fascinated with learning different styles, especially as they intersected with her Chinese culture.

Upon receiving the award, Chang spent eight weeks in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., where she worked with the New York Chinese Cultural Center to learn different Chinese ethnic dance variations. Throughout the summer, she practiced a variety of Chinese dance styles, picking up tips from professional instructors and observing her cultural dances in real time.

“There are two different types — one is the folk dance, which is more ethnic, and the other is classical,” Chang said. She focused her summer exploration on the ethnic styles that she had little exposure to in the past.

“I wanted to make it a big deal to really respect these cultures and see their historical, geographical influences,” Chang said. “I always had a feeling that I wasn’t learning the full scope of these different styles, but it was only when I actually arrived at the newer Chinese Cultural Center and the Museum of Chinese in America that I was like, ‘Oh, I’m missing out on this whole wealth of knowledge.’”

Chang said that her summer project gave her “a chance to meet different instructors and teachers [she] otherwise would not have [had] the opportunity to.” Now, on campus, Chang has translated this experience to her leadership in the Triple 8 East Asian dance company, of which she was president her junior year.

As an ORFE major, Chang said she never expected to spend a summer learning dance as opposed to interning in finance. Receiving the Dale award changed her plans.

“This is a really pragmatic way of thinking about it — you can always get higher with your career. There is always more you can do,” Chang said. “There also needs to be time for you to grow as a person, and [the Dale Award summer] is really the time that you can.”

Yoga for Self-Actualization

Reina Coulibaly ’24 spent the summer after her sophomore year redefining yoga. Her project, “Yoga for Self-Actualization,” was created in an effort to improve her mind-body connection.

“Initially, my Dale project was going to be to go to a yoga teacher training institute. I was going to live there and essentially just focus on learning and teaching about mindfulness, having to do with bodily awareness,” Coulibaly shared.

Instead, she embarked on a journey of rediscovering the original definition of yoga, which in India takes the form of spiritual unity as opposed to the physical exercise that is commonly associated with the word in the West. 

Set on experiencing mindfulness as both a spiritual and religious endeavor, she traveled to the Sonoma Ashram in California, where she lived for eight weeks. “I went there to explore the lived practice of yoga,” Coulibaly said.

While living in the Ashram, she spent her days participating in simple rituals. She remembered, “We would meditate for an hour in the morning and meditate for an hour in the evening, and I was responsible for helping maintain the garden.”

“It was challenging to me in that the lifestyle was so much slower and intentional relative to what I’m used to, especially as a student,” Coulibaly noted. “I had to confront my addiction to being busy that is very much enforced by the Princeton lifestyle.”

To document her Dale experience, Coulibaly created an audio mini-series that aired on WPRB, Princeton’s local radio station.

“My pieces that were produced during my time at the Ashram, I would say, are some of my most compelling features in my professional portfolio,” Coulibaly said. She intends to utilize them as she navigates the field of audio journalism upon graduation.

“My project was part of an effort that I had already been taking to incorporate more mindfulness in my life,” Coulibaly said. “The Dale was meant to be a way to actionably facilitate a project that I was already taking on for myself.”

Full Steam Ahead: A Musical Epic

Aaron Ventresca ’24 spent his summer touring various historical sites in Florida pertaining to the Florida East Coast Railway. The end goal of his research was to write a musical of his very own for his project, “Full Steam Ahead: A Musical Epic.”

“I actually applied really last minute,” he said. “I wasn’t even going to apply, and then I said, ‘You know, why not? I’ll submit this just to see what happens.’ And then I got it, and it was this really great experience.”

On campus, Ventresca is studying economics while earning minors in finance, Spanish, musical theatre, and theatre. Through the Dale Award, he was able to combine his interests in economics and music.

Drawing inspiration from the show “The Gilded Age,” Ventresca created his own show set in the same period, one marked by rapid economic growth. His musical centered on Henry Flagler, the founder of the Florida East Coast Railway. 

“My show specifically looks at race relations in Gilded Age Florida and the development of Florida as an economic powerhouse because of Henry Flagler,” Ventresca said. 

“I’m always looking for ways to push myself as a composer, push myself as an artist, and the Dale gave me the chance to do that,” he said. “It gave me the funding and the opportunity to devote myself to writing for three months, to stake myself, and to be able to perform academic research without having to [spend money].”

“It was the first time I had done any kind of serious historical research for any of my pieces and the first time I had done any kind of independent travel, which was a growth experience. It was also the first time I wrote a song through a musical,” he continued.

Ventresca said he appreciated the challenge of finding new composition strategies. “The entire thing is sung, so that was challenging — finding ways to make this story cohesive, to make sense when you really can’t talk.”

Since his Dale Award endeavors in 2022, Ventresca has stayed actively involved in performances on campus. In December, “Gaucho: A New Musical,” which he co-wrote with his sister, was performed at the Lewis Center for the Arts.

After graduation, Ventresca hopes to work in the music and entertainment industry. “The Dale [Award] definitely was the beginning of what I hope to make my career,” he said.

“If you’re a sophomore reading this, it’s a very worthy experience,” Ventresca noted. “You have the rest of your life to do work and internships. I would advise you to take the Dale if you get it.”

Alyssa Lloyd is an assistant Features editor for the ‘Prince.’

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