In 1984, Bob Peck ’88 was the valedictorian of his high school class, poised to become the first person in his family to attend college. The son of a butcher who had recently passed away, he planned to apply to schools only in his home state of Texas.
A visit from Alumni Schools Committee member Theodore McAlister ’52 introduced him to other possibilities. McAlister asked if he would like to consider attending Princeton. “Where’s Princeton?” Peck replied.
Peck found his way to the University, where he thrived after initially feeling less equipped to succeed than many of his classmates. His understanding of the difficulties students can encounter when they arrive at a competitive university with preparation that is not as rigorous as that of some of their peers—as well as a desire to support college access in general—led him to fund a new initiative.
A Welcoming Introduction to Intellectual Challenges
Peck’s funding aims to ease the transition, particularly for students interested in the life sciences and engineering, through Princeton’s Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI), a seven-week summer program that allows 80 incoming freshmen to work closely with members of the faculty while forging bonds with their peers. Like Peck, some FSI students are the first in their families to attend college; others have gone to high schools with limited advanced coursework. They take two courses while getting help transitioning to Princeton’s demanding curriculum. FSI students traditionally have taken a humanities survey course, “Ways of Knowing,” and a quantitative reasoning course. The Bob Peck ’88 Family Fund for the Freshman Scholars Institute will create two new courses in life sciences and engineering, featuring laboratory-based work. Students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) will take one of these new offerings in place of “Ways of Knowing.”
The initiative will also establish introductory workshops during the academic year for students taking freshman chemistry, as well as a summer research program to enable FSI alumni to work in the lab of a faculty member during their undergraduate years, allowing them to take part in original scientific research. The new opportunities will be phased in as of the summer of 2015.
Introducing these students to the thrill of scientific discovery at the beginning of their Princeton education could combat the common problem of attrition in STEM programs, said Professor of Molecular Biology Frederick Hughson. “We want students to experience the excitement of hands-on experiments—that’s the thing that has always made scientists want to be scientists—before they plunge into freshman chemistry and all the rest.”
A Commitment to Socioeconomic Diversity
Peck greatly admires Princeton’s commitment to improving college access and helping students from diverse backgrounds encounter the life of the mind at the highest level. “Princeton University seeks to attract, retain, and successfully graduate students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, including students from lower-income families,” President Eisgruber said in a statement he submitted as part of a White House summit on increasing college opportunity for disadvantaged students in January 2014.
“Part of that is simply gaining access to a place like Princeton,” Peck said. “But I came to understand that you can’t just dump students in without any ongoing support.”
Funding the FSI initiative, he added, is “a really wonderful opportunity for me to contribute toward that much wider goal.”
At Princeton, Peck majored in history, studied pre-med, served as a resident adviser, and became a Rhodes Scholar. Today he is the managing director of FPR Partners in San Francisco, an investment firm that he founded in 2003. That visit from McAlister “truly changed my life,” he said. Princeton “opened the world to me intellectually. I can’t help but be very thankful to him. One hour of his time that afternoon set my life on a whole different trajectory. I want to relay that opportunity to others.”
Peck has done just that: establishing an endowed scholarship for Princeton undergraduates; donating to the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP), a multiyear effort that prepares disadvantaged New Jersey high school students for admission to selective colleges; and funding freshman seminars—besides supporting the new FSI initiative.
“In addition to the great effect a Princeton education can have on the students themselves,” Peck said, “they also contribute to their peers by adding a diversity of worldviews and experiences. They will likely impact the wider world in a way that might be less likely without the training Princeton provides.”
He hopes that other universities will follow Princeton’s example.
Photo of Bob Peck ’88: Eli Zaturanski