Staff members at Princeton University can compose more than just well-crafted emails and reports as proven by their participation in the second annual Princeton Writes essay contest, an initiative designed to inspire and recognize outstanding writing on their part. This year’s submission prompt invited employees to share their thoughts on diversity in our community.
Out of 20 submissions across 18 academic and administrative units, an essay by Bryant Blount took the top prize. April Armstrong, Violette Chamoun, and Brian Mondschein received honorable mentions.
The authors, who all share the daily experience of working at Princeton, have decidedly unique backgrounds, bringing stories of their origins, travels, and interactions across the globe to a campus that has grown in many ways since its small and homogenous beginnings in colonial New Jersey.
Violette Chamoun, from Campus Dining at Forbes College, wrote about her experience as an immigrant from Lebanon in her essay, “A Taste for Diversity,” exploring how food encompasses identify. When she saw the prompt, she knew she had something to say about diversity. “Something inside me jumped and said, ‘This is me,’” she recalled. Chamoun said she writes often, both in Arabic, which she considers her own language, and English, which she had to learn when she moved to the United States. As she composed her essay, she considered how to keep the reader engaged by basing her writing on her personal experience.
Chamoun saw the contest as an excellent opportunity to share her stories, which she had kept to herself for a long time: “After 28 years, I was able to tell people what I had to go through.” She has found the responses from colleagues to be both positive and incredulous. “Now people know me better from reading the essay,” she said. Several people, amazed by her stories, have asked her, “Did you really go through all this?”
Although April Armstrong, a Special Collections Assistant at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, did not have to cross international borders to come to Princeton, she relates how her home state of Oklahoma can feel like a whole world away in her essay, “Divided by an Invisible Distance.” She describes the challenge of using her U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs-issued Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood or Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma citizenship card as her legal ID.
Armstrong wanted to contribute to the discussion of race, which she regards as often unduly focused on appearance. “Not everything about someone is visible,” she said. She also believes the conversation on diversity should extend beyond ethnicity: “There are a lot of things in my identity not necessarily racially related.”
Her work at the library gives her a special view of how Princeton’s dynamics have changed. Although the University has made efforts in its later years to admit more diverse classes, the archives permanently record the story about a less inclusive time. While Armstrong considers Princeton to be her home now, she still stays connected to her Choctaw origins. “Princeton can’t get rid of the history of itself, and I can’t either,” she said. “I want to have a connection.”
Armstrong writes regularly for the library blog and welcomed the opportunity to write an essay that incorporated words from the Choctaw language. “It’s good for people to experience the language,” she said, pointing out that many people do not know that the word Oklahoma is derived from a Choctaw term.
While Brian Mondschein, who coaches Women’s Track and Field, is not from an exotic location, his complex identity was strong fuel for his essay, “Returning to Levittown.” As the son of a Hawaiian-born Japanese graduate student and a Brooklyn-born Jew and American veteran, Mondschein confused his less-than-friendly childhood paperboy in New York, who did not even know the “correct” derogatory ethnic slur to use. While he faced discrimination as a child, his position as captain of the football team in high school changed how others perceived him, and he took on “athlete” as his full identity.
Although Mondschein attended graduate school for writing before fully committing to a career in athletics, he does not consider himself a writer. Although he found entering the contest to be fun, writing regularly is a challenge. “Writing, which we think of as so rewarding and exciting, is the kind of hard work that you don’t necessarily go into first. You have your house to clean or errands to run,” he said. “You never get done with all that stuff.” Mondschein found that the prompt of a topic and the incentive of potentially winning a contest to be very motivational to sit down and write.
Bryant Blount from the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, who attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, set his untitled essay in Japan. Blount believes experiences of diversity can be quite personal, and his trip was one of his formative memories. “That summer really stands out to me as the first time I’d left the country. For me, part of what ties it to Princeton is it happened while I was a student,” he said. “It impacted me at a time when a lot of things were changing.”
While the trip was overall a positive experience, he described feeling frazzled on the day he documents in his essay. It was a struggle to communicate, and he was surprised by an interaction with a small child on the train. Blount writes about how the child offered him a candy, and he politely declined in Japanese. “Why didn’t he take the candy as a gesture?” many have asked.
“It was kind of awkward,” he said. “It was a big travel day. There’s a lot coming at you. You can’t go back, only go forward.” However, he considers reaching out in another language a positive part of the encounter. “The best thing I did was speaking in Japanese, and he didn’t expect that.”
Blount is a big fan of the Princeton Writes program, having enjoyed reading last year’s essay contest submissions. He feels that outside of the program, he doesn’t always have the opportunity or desire to write: “It’s kind of like hearing the sound of your own voice. I don’t always love reading what I write. I don’t have an audience I write consistently for or things I write consistently about.”
The Princeton Writes program offers a welcoming space for all people to cultivate their inner writer. Its annual essay contest is both an opportunity and a challenge to do just that.
Princeton Writes is grateful to Dana Eckstein of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory for contributing this story.