Students from the Great Class of 2027 in their seats at Sunday’s Opening Exercises, which marked the start of the academic year at Princeton.
President Christopher L. Eisgruber officially greeted the Class of 2027 during Opening Exercises on Sunday, Sept. 3, urging first-years to embrace the learning and growth that await them as Princeton undergraduates.
“Indeed, when I speak to Princeton alumni about their education, the word they use most often is ‘transformative,’” he said in his address to the assembled class members, who wore colorful t-shirts representing their residential colleges. “Transformation is a wonderful thing,” Eisgruber said. “It’s also very demanding. It brings worry along with joy, frustration along with happiness. That’s okay; indeed, that is part of what it means to get a great education.”
Opening Exercises, the annual ceremony that marks the start of each academic year, dates to at least 1802. In addition to the address by Eisgruber, the interfaith ceremony on the front lawn of Nassau Hall featured hymns, readings, prayers and the awarding of undergraduate academic prizes.
Evoking Toni Morrison’s wisdom
Speaking to the theme of transformation, Eisgruber evoked the late Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize-winning author and longtime Princeton professor, who wrote in a 1996 speech for Princeton’s 250th-anniversary convocation that at Princeton, “Every doorway, every tree and turn is haunted by peals of laughter, murmurs of loyalty and love, tears of pleasure and sorrow and triumph.”
“I like this passage very much,” Eisgruber said, “partly because it recognizes that learning and growth are not easy, not for anyone. There will inevitably be not just triumphs but also sorrows, not just laughter but also tears, when we challenge ourselves, when we develop and change, and when we care deeply — as we should, as we must — about our academic and co-curricular endeavors and our community.”
Maria Ressa’s transformations
He also spoke about Maria Ressa, a 1986 graduate and the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who wrote about the transformations she experienced at Princeton in her book “How to Stand Up to a Dictator,” this year’s Princeton Pre-read. On Sunday evening, first-year students discussed the book with Eisgruber and Ressa during an assembly in Jadwin Gymnasium.
Ressa, founder of the news agency Rappler.com in the Philippines, sat in the front row of the audience during the Opening Exercises ceremony. Eisgruber recounted two tales of transformation from her book: how a conversation with a first-year classmate started with “blunt, direct criticism” but eventually grew into a lifelong friendship; and how Ressa’s own deep feelings of anger, unleashed during an acting class, ignited her creative process. He said these experiences “were life-changing for Maria. They were transformative. But they were not easy.”
At Princeton, Ressa discovered that the path to meaningful transformation required her to ask for help, Eisgruber noted.
The courage to ask for assistance
He encouraged the incoming students to ask for help, too, without hesitation — something they might not be comfortable doing, and something he said he struggled with as a first-year student when he found himself in a physics class that was too advanced for him. “Admitting that we need help is hard, and doing so can be especially difficult for students who attend Princeton — you are all extraordinarily talented and you are accustomed to succeeding,” he said.
He emphasized that support is available throughout the University community — from fellow classmates, professors, deans, chaplains, counselors, coaches and a myriad of others. Asking for help can take courage, he added. “But you need to be strong enough to ask for help when you need it, which, at some point, you will, because that is part of what it means to get a really good education.”
Building a shared common good
He also urged the students to look for opportunities to help each other succeed and thrive, both in and outside the classroom. Creating mutual respect is especially important, he said, acknowledging that “we live in a time of intense social conflict, when hateful speech is too common and when some people prefer to stoke division rather than build a shared common good.”
Earlier, during Orientation activities for the incoming class, Eisgruber and ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, Class of 1987, explored and underscored the importance of academic freedom and free expression on campus in a presentation to a packed house at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre. The event marked the second consecutive year Eisgruber has led an Orientation session devoted to the topic.
At Opening Exercises, he invited everyone to join Princeton’s commitment to equality, inclusivity and respect — eliciting extended, energetic applause from the audience. “Our community must be a place where students, faculty and staff of all identities feel fully welcome, free to express themselves, and able to participate fully in the transformational educational experiences that Princeton offers,” he said.
Free to disagree
“Of course, that does not mean that we will all agree with one another,” he said. “On the contrary, I expect that you will disagree with one another, with your professors, and, for that matter, with me. You are free to do that; indeed, you are encouraged to do that.
“Engaged discussion and passionate argument are essential to a college education,” he continued. “So too are mutual respect and collegial support that allow us to learn and grow together.”
In closing, Eisgruber expressed his excitement about the start of the new academic year and the opportunity to get to know the Great Class of 2027. “We can, and should, aspire both to think critically and to embrace generously. I hope that is the path you choose while you are here at Princeton and throughout your lives.”
Following the ceremony, the students took part in another Princeton tradition: the Pre-rade, a mini version of the giant P-rade that takes place each spring during Princeton Reunions. The Princeton University Band and Princeton Cheerleading welcomed the newest Tigers with energy and enthusiasm.
A week of transition
Sunday was part of a week of Orientation activities before classes for all undergraduates begin on Tuesday, Sept. 5.
Last week, students participated in one of Princeton’s three small group experiences — Community Action, Dialogue and Difference in Action, and Outdoor Action — and attended other Orientation events meant to help first-years bond and support their transition to college life.
Community Action, coordinated by the John H. Pace ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, introduces first-year students to the community at Princeton and beyond. Dialogue and Difference in Action provides an opportunity to engage in critical conversations around identity, power, privilege and difference — both in the context of the Princeton University community and society at large. Outdoor Action lets incoming undergraduates disconnect from their many responsibilities and distractions to establish new friendships through activities such as camping, canoeing, biking and hiking.
This story originally appeared on the Princeton University website.