Princeton University seniors Emma Coley and Ben Press have been named co-winners of the 2020 Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, the highest general distinction conferred on an undergraduate. They were recognized at a luncheon during Alumni Day on campus Saturday, Feb. 22. Coley's and Press's remarks from the luncheon are below. Read more about Emma Coley and Ben Press in this News at Princeton article.
Photos by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications
My final week of conducting ethnographic thesis fieldwork at Second Chance Homeless Village, the official eviction notice was posted by the city of Akron, Ohio. The city was finally shutting down the encampment after a two-year long legal battle between the city government and the camp’s residents and allies. As I was among those helping move residents back into the woods, photos of immigrants being sheltered in tents along the U.S.-Mexico border were sparking national outrage. This led homeless villagers to ask, “So they can have tents, but we can’t? Aren’t we basically American-born refugees?”
I first met the founders of Second Chance Village through a service program at my Catholic high school. At that time, the homeless population of Akron was not so much a community as a loosely connected network of encampments scattered throughout the city. By the time I started college, however, the Village had become a self-organized community: homeless-run and homeless-led, with its own security, governance, and maintenance structures.
The stories of folks at Second Chance, and the Jesuit education that made my friendship with them possible, served as a key frame and background for my Princeton education. My parents and my Jesuit formation cultivated a sensitivity to what types of knowledge are valued, who can be an “expert,” and what exactly an education can and should be for.
These are the questions I was asking when I arrived on Princeton’s campus, by way of the Bridge Year Program, in 2016. My introduction to my liberal arts education was a small freshman seminar taught by Professor Cornel West. In this course, entitled, “Rabbi Heschel and Martin Luther King,” we interrogated the intersection between scholarship and praxis through the lens of two great scholar-activists of the Civil Rights Movement. Professor West encouraged us to approach our liberal arts education not only for its intellectual value but as, a project of “soul craft.”
This project of “soul craft” necessitated that I learn and engage not only with my brain but with my whole self in community with others. It was this piece of learning in community, inside the classroom and out, that encouraged me to engage critically with the intellectual frameworks I was inheriting as a humanist and with the histories of the place that was making that education possible.
In addition to my professors, some of my greatest teachers have been the community partners I have met through my work at the Pace Center and the Office of Religious Life. People like Pastor Karen Hernandez Granzen taught me how to do community-based work with joy, a joy perhaps best represented by her signature bedazzled baseball cap. People like Ben Thornton, who teach not with commands but with stories, stories that I often find myself repeating. People like Paola Piscitelli, a member of the San Egidio community who demonstrated to me the deep demands and rewards of friendship, especially friendship with the most marginalized in our cities, and the ways in which friendship is a political act.
During my last four years at Princeton, my friends and peers have been powerful teachers of the fact that while we cannot choose the histories we inherit, we can choose the traditions we engage with on campus.
For example, I wouldn’t be a good aspiring humanist or a good ethicist without acknowledging on this stage the deep roots of this prize, the types of labor it values, and the origins of the inheritance of Moses Taylor Pyne. As the article from the Princeton and Slavery Project reads, Moses Taylor Pyne was one of the University’s most prominent benefactors, and his financial contributions “reveal the complex relationship between Princeton, the American sugar trade, and the slave economy.” While Pyne’s fortune is most often discussed in terms of Pyne’s own success as a commercial lawyer, a more rigorous history reveals that “Pyne’s payments for something as ordinary as a fan [for East Pyne Hall] stemmed directly from an estate whose earliest foundations lay not simply in the banking world of New York, but in the daily work of carrying the produce of the region’s largest sugar plantations that were fueled by the labor of enslaved people .”
I accept this award with a firm commitment to use my skills as a scholar and a citizen to dismantle the types of extractive logics that made Pyne’s fortune possible. In doing this work, I look to my peers as guides, peers who take part in Princeton’s tradition’s in creative ways-- from divestment from apartheid South Africa in 1985 to fossil fuels today, from sit-ins demanding the creation of the Department of African American Studies and to name and condemn the racism of Wilson’s legacy in 2015 to justice for survivors of sexual assault just last spring, to the actions taking just across the street by the Association of Black Seminarians successfully demanding that PTS pay reparations for its own endowment’s ties to the slave economy. The tradition of students, alongside key supporters among the faculty and staff, working to fashion their departments, this University, and this world into a place that is livable for them.
In addition to learning from and engaging these traditions of community partnership and student activism, during my time at Princeton, I have had the opportunity to work alongside peers, professors, and staff members to establish ‘new’ traditions. The first of these is the Hidden Chaplains project, a project that seeks to recognize campus workers for the small and large ways they make this campus a real home for so many students. I think of my own Hidden Chaplain, Stephanie Lewandowski, the program manager for humanistic studies, who has been a constant source of support and laughter for me and so many other scared HUM sequence freshmen…taking on the roles of mentor, advisor, and friend that fall completely outside of her job description.
Through projects like Hidden Chaplains, the Office of Religious Life has challenged me to think through the question: “How do we create a compassionate university?” It has also challenged me to ask “How do we create a just university?” In response to this question, I have been in awe of the ORL’s ability to shape campus into a place of convening, not just for academics, but for faith leaders, social service providers, activists, and community healers.
One of these projects of convening, the ORL’s Religion and Resettlement Project, is a five-year project that brings together academics and practitioners to explore the role that religion plays in refugee resettlement.
Just as the Religion and Resettlement Project was being formulated, a change in presidential administration led to a severe drop in the number of refugee admissions to the U.S. and, as a result, in funding and staffing for refugee resettlement agencies. One of our primary partners on the project, Catholic Charities, explained that as a result of these cuts, their organization had a limited ability to participate in the project as it was originally envisioned. What they really needed was support for asylum seekers, those who had to prove their status as a refugee through a different, defensive legal process, in the form of scholarly experts who would be willing to testify on their behalf.
In order to meet these needs, I, alongside staff members of Princeton’s Office of Religious Life, realized that we would have to develop a new initiative that, that instead of producing ethnographic knowledge of the role of religion in the resettlement process, leveraged existing knowledge regarding country conditions to serve the immediate needs of migrating people.
Through the Asylum Project, we created a structure through which a network of students could identify and assist scholars from around the globe who had the expertise needed by specific asylum seekers whose cases were occurring in real time. Through the Asylum Project, I see us building a tradition in which students and scholars explore the role a university can play in the careful mobilization of knowledge in the creation of a more just world—not in the abstract, but in terms of the lives of real people.
I hope to spend my year next year serving as a live-in volunteer at a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality for unhoused people in Portland. This is an outgrowth of my independent work that feels, in many ways, like moving full circle--returning to the interpersonal, community-based work that has enlivened my heart and mind since high school. However, I am approaching this work now, after my four years at Princeton, with a more critical lens and robust vocabulary for exploring ideas of structural inequality, global displacement, and the types of ethical frameworks that shape our role as citizens, neighbors, and friends. I am also struck by the fact that, practically, my best preparation for this role at Princeton has come from time spent at my vegetarian co-op, 2D, and learning the art of cooking not-so-tasteless beans for 50 people and its challenges in community life. I approach this year with a desire to continue my education--and the ongoing work of ‘soul craft’--outside of the classroom with the activists and community makers that, through my independent research, have become some of my most valued teachers.
As I leave Princeton, anticipating a future of graduate school in theology or religious studies, I am so grateful for the opportunities I have had to develop as a scholar, friend, and advocate, and I want to take the time to thank the people who are here supporting me today:
Professor Judith Hamera, who has been a constant source of grounding and inspiration that has supported me and the rest of my Bridge Year Cohort since 2015, and never misses a Dean’s Date ice cream.
Stephanie Lewandowski, my hidden chaplain.
Professor Shaun Marmon, my junior paper adviser who encouraged me to tackle the difficult task of writing about home.
Professor Eric Gregory, my thesis advisor and mentor who encourages students like me “to not only pursue writing about love and justice, but living them”
Professor Annemarie Luijendijk, the head of my residential college who demonstrated the ways in which a professor’s role can be truly pastoral, and introduced me to my favorite tea
Dean Alison Boden and the Office of Religious Life who model for me how to cultivate voice and hold space.
Charlotte Collins, who has always encouraged my desire to study religion and is a model for me and so many other students of how to combine friendship, theory, and praxis.
My parents, who have always encouraged me to pursue my passions and who model for me what it means to be a good neighbor and how to pursue a life of continuous learning, open to growth and change
Finally, my friends - I am so grateful for your friendships as people who keep me rooted in my values, who helped me write this speech, who join in on lofty projects, and make Princeton a place that is not only livable, but a real home, for me. Thank you.
Thank you, President Eisgruber, for that extraordinarily kind introduction, and to all the friends, family, and mentors who are here today.
Princeton is full of surprises. I was reminded of that a couple weeks ago, when I got an email from Dean Dolan asking to talk about some items related to the Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid. It was an unusual request, but of course I agreed. I showed up at her office 9:30AM last Monday, notebook and budget materials in hand. As I rounded the corner, I saw Dean Deignan seated inside. Having worked closely with her on Honor Committee reform, I knew full well that she is in charge of student discipline. As I walked in I almost froze, thinking to myself, “this is either really good, or really, really bad.” Scared out of my wits, I blurted out, half-jokingly, “am I being honor coded?” to which Dean Dolan, in her usual good humor, replied “no, but you are being Pyne Prized.” The surprise from that one still hasn’t worn off.
As a student of history, I get to think a lot about the power of surprise. It’s natural for us to look back on things and assume that if a given mix of inputs are put together in a certain context, then the outcome will logically follow. But history doesn’t work that way, as my professors have made sure to tell me on more than one occasion. You see, it’s often easy to assume that what is clear in retrospect was also clear in prospect. But in so doing, we remove the power of surprise and the unexpected as determining forces in shaping lives and, by extension, history. Getting over this historian’s fallacy has been one of my greatest intellectual—and personal—struggles at Princeton. I only overcame that struggle when I realized that Princeton’s capacity to surprise was not something to be feared, but to be embraced.
That reckoning came early on in my time here. Before classes had begun freshman year, I walked into the academics fair at Frick Laboratory wondering how I would fulfill my pre-reqs for Woody Woo. I knew I needed a history course, so I stopped by the history table and asked for recommendations. The senior there handed me a list of recommended classes, one of which worked with my schedule, so I enrolled without even looking at the course description. The course was on the Civilization of the High Middle Ages—something I knew literally nothing about—with Professor Bill Jordan. As any of you who have ever sat in on one of his lectures will know, though, once you’re in, you’re hooked. Within two weeks I had changed my major and charted a new academic course. Fast forward three and a half years, and that choice to take a random course has changed my life, igniting an interest in medieval history—and landing me a pretty great thesis adviser.
The power of the unexpected extended outside of the classroom. For example, I met my closest friends on this campus because I decided to crash their Christmas party and struck up a conversation with the host about his flag pin collection. I decided to run for student government after someone forwarded an informational email about USG to the wrong Ben. I found my passion for democracy promotion and the joy of living abroad in a Princeton international internship that I almost turned down. Realizing how each surprise became so formative, I resolved to seize unexpected opportunities. As a result, I’ve taken classes and joined groups which have allowed me to walk the beaches of Normandy and scale Macchu Picchu. I took an internship at Monet’s home tending his famed water lilies, because hey, why not. I’ve happily accepted last minute invitations to have breakfast with a head of state and join trips to the Supreme Court, because seizing opportunity is the essence of making the most out of Princeton.
Of course, not all surprise is welcome. I’ll never forget waking up one October morning in my junior year to the news that my mother had unexpectedly passed away. I was crushed. But as I grappled with whether or not to take the rest of the year off to focus on my family and my own healing, a part of me knew that I needed to be at Princeton, because she and I shared a deep pride in this place. This is exactly where she wanted me to be, and mothers are always right. As soon as I returned to campus, I was surprised again by how quickly and readily this community rallied around me in my time of need. My friends, my professors, my advisers, and even strangers readily gave me a helping hand when I most needed it. In that awful moment, this community reminded me once again of its capacity to surprise.
Perhaps the most amazing thing, though, is how quickly this all has gone by. As I look back on my time at Princeton, I remain amazed, baffled, and yes, surprised, by how it’s all played out. It’s been a whirlwind of experience—some bad, mostly good—which has shaped every facet of my being. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.