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Princeton-Blairstown Center seeks student involvement

As the academic year winds down and Princeton students gear up for summer internships, the different opportunities run the gamut. Some will head to Wall Street to join the wolf pack. Others will head west in search of startups, and others still will take their talents out of the good old US of A to pursue some international adventures. Summer opportunities take Princeton students across the map, but not all adventures require extensive travel. Some can be found right here in New Jersey at the Princeton-Blairstown Center.

Founded in 1908 by University students, Princeton-Blairstown Center began as a summer camp designed to give boys from urban Philadelphia experience in the outdoors while developing leadership skills. The program has since expanded into a year-round initiative that works in local schools, on campus and still includes its original summer program. According to their website, PBC has a full-time staff member on site in various schools in the area (including Trenton Central High School) and offers regular programming to build a community among the students that helps to develop leadership skills.

Since its creation, PBC has had close ties to the University and was a student-run camp until its expansion in the 1970s. In 1995, it became one of the University’s “supporting organizations” to receive access to accounting, legal and engineering services, and the University appointed a majority of PBC’s board members. In 2013, however, the University finalized cutting its financial and administrative ties with PBC. Although the official split has been difficult, University students will continue to play an integral part in Princeton-Blairstown Center’s functioning, given the long-standing connection between PBC and the University.

Sascha Brown ’14 served as a summer experiential education facilitator with PBC after her freshman year. PBC’s summer program invites groups of urban youth as well as private groups to take part in various activities such as rock climbing, ropes courses and canoeing while staying on the Center’s 263-acre campus. As a facilitator, Brown was responsible for developing a curriculum for the students participating over the summer and leading them through various activities during their time in the program. Brown worked closely with the groups of children who came to PBC over the summer, and her experience has had a significant impact on her post graduation plans.

“It [being a summer facilitator] is a very strong reason why I am doing Teach for America after graduation because it was my first time getting to work with these populations and understand what it meant to be there and to serve them even though the students might resist,” Brown said.

When groups come to PBC over the summer, they choose a certain goal to work on over the course of their stay, which can range from one night to two weeks. According to their website, PBC offers experiential learning to address various community concepts such as leadership, team building, conflict resolution and healthy decision making. Facilitators must take into account the group’s desired goal and keep that concept in mind when determining which activities to introduce to the group and how to debrief and promote conversations about those activities. Students can apply to be a summer facilitator via PBC’s website. The positions are filled by students from Princeton as well other colleges.

Urban youth are the primary population that PBC serves, but its summer program is open to all groups. In the past, Wilson School graduate students have taken part in PBC’s program, and Outdoor Action basecamp groups routinely use Princeton-Blairstown Center’s campus. The center does not offer camps for individual students; they must attend through a group program.

“We’re looking for ways to integrate the Princeton student body and Blairstown’s primary service population,” Brown said. “Some of the ways we’ve done that is through campus expeditions, where you’ll see students from our Blairstown partner schools come to campus and take a tour.”

Brown has found promoting University engagement to be difficult because of students’ busy schedules and reluctance to commit. Termed “campus expeditions,” PBC brings students from Trenton schools to campus to see the college and the activities it has to offer. Brown has also brought collegiate activities into the Trenton schools. She created the “Princeton Performance Series,” a series of student panels in Trenton schools that discussed various topics like the transition to college as well as opportunities and activities beyond academics that are available for exploration in college. The series was supplemented by performances from Princeton’s African a cappella group, Umqombothi.

“It makes the idea of college more tangible. The elementary school students see college students and think these are things I can do once I get to school that aren’t just academic,” Brown said. “That’s motivating for them, especially because I think a lot of these things aren’t modeled.”

For the immediate future, University student body engagement and awareness is key for Princeton-Blairstown Center.

“The history of Blairstown with the University has been so long and so rich. The ties are so strong but if you were to look at it today, you would have no idea there was such a rich history,” Brown explained. “We want to reinvigorate that connection with the student body.”

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