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Princeton Asks — “What’s Your Service Focus?”

“What’s your service focus?” is the question to be answered by Princeton students participating in a new program intended to combine service and learning early in their University experience. The Service Focus Program will bring undergraduates together to explore the meaning of service and its place in their lives during an intensive yearlong experience. Freshmen were invited to apply this past March and those selected will become the first cohort of the Service Focus Program.

The value of service has long been central to the mission of Princeton as a liberal arts institution. Service infuses the passions and pursuits of students, faculty, staff, and alumni. It’s the medium through which Princetonians contribute to the common welfare of society. Christopher L. Eisgruber, President of Princeton University, states that “Princeton University has a longstanding commitment to service, reflected in Princeton’s informal motto — Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity — and exemplified by the extraordinary contributions that Princetonians make to society.”

The University continuously emphasizes its commitment to helping students and alumni use their educations to not only benefit themselves but also society at large. Princeton pushes students to consider how their research, education, and lives will benefit the nation and humanity and gives them the support and resources they need to put their ideas into action.

Princeton’s Service Focus Program builds on the University’s commitment to service and civic engagement. The Program consists of a funded summer service internship; service-related courses; and opportunities for students to engage with faculty and peers to learn what it means to be “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

The idea for the Service Focus Program emerged from the University’s strategic planning process as a way to help students form their own commitment to service and to make service more integral to their undergraduate experience. The Program’s students will address critical societal challenges through classes and co-curricular activities. Yi-Ching Ong, as Director, will lead the Program. Ong has said that Service Focus is unique as the university’s only discipline that combines innovative educational approaches, student engagement and leadership, faculty mentorship, and thoughtful reflective experiences.

The Program’s students will also take a course designed to connect their co-curricular activities with their class work through Princeton’sCommunity-Based Learning Initiative (CBLI). CBLI is a curriculum that fosters student’s interests in and concerns for local, regional, national, and international communities. Community-engaged learning allows students to apply the knowledge and skills they acquire in the classroom to actual societal problems. Depending on the course, this could involve developing a theater piece with local youth, producing a film, or reviewing the scholarly literature on a key issue for the benefit of the staff of a nonprofit organization. CBLI courses may also involve data collection through interviews, surveys, or measurements in the field, or in-depth analysis of previously collected data. Working with faculty members and community leaders, students develop projects and share their results and conclusions not just with their professors, but also with organizations and agencies that can make good use of their work.

Service Focus and CBLI are programs that constitute part of the undergraduate curriculum of students who choose to participate in them. They co-exist with a successful 15-year old program that’s common to all Princeton undergraduates — the Pace Center for Civic Engagement. The Pace Center makes service and civic engagement universal elements of the Princeton undergraduate experience. Pace helps students learn to perform service well so that it produces the maximum benefit to the community. Through sustained volunteering, community immersion, student advocacy and activism, summer internships, and post-graduate fellowships, the Pace Center guides students as they learn to be well prepared for service to the public, to be intentional about the work they do, and to reflect thoughtfully about the service in which they engage.

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