The Pace Center’s Dual Mandate

by Sam Norton

In the spring of 2009, Princeton students voted in a referendum to donate roughly $90,000 to the Pace Center, a contribution that required foregoing the traditional Fall Lawnparties concert. In addition, the Center’s annual budget, which was then listed at over $1 million, is drawn largely from University sources, especially endowment income. Given the support that Pace receives from the University community, it stands to reason that students ought to remain informed of its activities so as to evaluate whether the money invested in Pace is being well spent.

Founded in 2001, the Pace Center is an umbrella organization that encompasses a variety of programs designed to promote civic engagement at Princeton. Its subsidiaries include the Student Volunteers Council (SVC), which coordinates weekly student-led volunteer projects in the Princeton area, as well as connecting students with summer internship openings and managing alternative break trips and Community Action. As stated on the Pace Center’s website, its mission is to “[support] efforts…to identify and address issues of public concern, to be actively engaged citizens, and to practice effective public leadership for the purpose of building stronger communities and societies throughout the world.”

The aims of the Pace Center essentially boil down to two components, which, though not mutually exclusive, can potentially come into conflict with one another. On the one hand, the Pace Center exists to give students the opportunity to be involved in community service; at the same time, however, the Pace Center is concerned not just with the level of participation by Princeton students, but also with the effects of those efforts. Weighing the relative importance of these joint objectives is a difficult task, but one that the Center must navigate successfully.

Students are granted a significant amount of responsibility for leading the Pace Center and its affiliates. Stephen Streicher, Pace’s communications manager, mentions that there are currently 39 students who hold senior positions at the Pace Center, as well as 62 project coordinators at the SVC. According to Streicher, these students, who are selected through an open and competitive application process, make decisions ranging from allocation of funds to acceptance of new projects. Pace Center staff function in an advisory role, allowing students to gain experience in civic engagement.

Students who have been active in the Pace Center report that this autonomy gives them the ability to take charge on important measures. Haley White ’12, a member of the Pace Council for Civic Values, describes several initiatives in which students have played a prominent part. These include establishing partnerships with other campus organizations, such as the Office of Religious Life, residential colleges, and the eating clubs, as well as planning events and inviting guest speakers. While White acknowledges the vital assistance of Pace staffers, she also stresses that students perform in the capacity of leaders on Pace projects.

But the Pace Center is not focused solely on the rewards it offers to Princeton students. The weekly projects sponsored by the SVC seek to address a wide array of needs, including health, hunger, education, and youth outreach. Many of these programs are concentrated on alleviating social ills in underprivileged sectors of Trenton. Inequality is a major national issue that Princeton students alone are hardly capable of solving, but, on a small scale, civic engagement projects can make a difference.

Of course, evaluating the impact of volunteerism, or suggesting ways to improve those efforts, is challenging. At present, there are no data publicly available on the performance of volunteer projects, rendering accountability nearly impossible. However, the Pace Center does conduct internal oversight to “identify issues” with its projects, and to aggressively intervene in cases where its projects are struggling, as noted by David Brown, Director of the SVC.

Examining the efficacy of service projects addresses only half of the equation. It is easy to imagine circumstances in which the ideal approach from a societal perspective might not necessarily be the one that maximizes the benefits for the greatest possible number of Princeton students. For instance, the existing system is riddled with overlap, featuring six separate and virtually identical tutoring projects, which could perhaps be made more efficient through consolidation. This outcome, however, would be achieved at the expense of students who develop valuable leadership skills as Project Coordinators.

As a volunteer for a tutoring project, I have witnessed the conflict between quality and quantity of civic engagement firsthand. This year, our group adopted a new model, whereby volunteers, instead of being permitted to tutor at their convenience, were required to commit to coming on the same day of the week for an extended period of time. This plan, developed by the SVC in conjunction with our contact person at the school at which we tutor, has produced mixed results. It has certainly improved the quality of our program by allowing tutors to develop a closer relationship with the students they tutor; however, given the hectic schedules of Princeton students, it has also resulted in a decrease in the volume of volunteer participation.

The Pace Center, by and large, seems satisfied with its current efforts to balance student participation and community benefits. Indeed, in response to an inquiry, Brown downplays this challenge, instead arguing that fulfilling these twin goals “go hand-in-hand.” As attested by Brown, the SVC strives to sustain all of its extant projects, undertaking measures to revive them when they falter, or to reconstitute them if they are unsalvageable. In addition, Streicher says that the SVC continues to solicit applications for new service projects. This can be interpreted as an implication that the SVC as an institution believes that the number of projects it now supports is at or below the optimal level, and could potentially be increased.

On the other hand, some Pace Center activities swing too far in the opposite direction, enriching students without measurably impacting communities. Breakout trips are an example of this phenomenon. These excursions emphasize teaching participants about problems, rather than attempting to solve them. This is certainly a worthy goal, but one that might be achieved in a more cost-effective manner. In a presentation before the USG, the Pace Center announced that it had spent $24,000 on weeklong Breakout trips this spring, which, with 54 participants, cost $444 per person. By contrast, other University sponsorship sources are far less profligate: the Dean’s Fund for Summer Study Abroad provides grants that range from $500 to $1500 for students to participate in programs lasting four weeks or more. Sending students to distant locales such as Colorado or Los Angeles, the destinations of two recent trips, also undermines Pace’s focus on the Princeton area, where it has a comparative advantage due to its institutional knowledge and experience.

There is no precise formula for how combine breadth and depth in civic engagement. In recent years, the Center seems to have done a reasonably good job maintaining this equilibrium, as testified by the magnitude of student involvement. It has avoided becoming either a professionalized deliverer of services, or a vehicle for students to pad their resumes and pay indulgences for their privilege. Going forward, the Pace Center must be vigilant in resisting the temptation to gravitate toward either of these extremes.

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