Freshman Seminars Offer Deep Dives, Community — and, Occasionally, International Travel

Carrie Compton, Princeton International
Students pose in front of the Grand Ise Shrine. Students pose in front of the Grand Ise Shrine in Japan during a Freshman Seminar trip.

There are certain things considered standard for first-year Princeton students: extra-long bed sheets, all-seasons attire for cross-campus treks, a laptop. But for some lucky students enrolled in freshman seminars with an international travel component, add to that list a passport and a healthy dose of wanderlust.

            Evan Callas ’27 was among the 15 students in Architecture Professor Guy Nordenson’s freshman seminar “Design and Craft: The Building and Ecology of the Ise Shrines,” which included a weeklong trip to Japan during Fall Break in October.

Students explore the campus of the Grand Ise Shrines in the Mie Prefeture. Students explore the campus of the Grand Ise Shrines in the Mie Prefeture.

            “I grew up in New Jersey, and one of my goals when I came to Princeton was to get a good view, overall, of a lot of different cultures,” said Callas, who began the school year expecting to concentrate on mechanical and aerospace engineering but is now interested in incorporating architecture into his future studies after this trip. “I don't think we could have gotten more immersed in the culture,” he said, adding that after a brief stint in Tokyo, the group stayed in traditional Japanese inns across the countryside, sleeping and eating on traditional tatami mats and observing other customs. “It really opened my mind to a different way of living and made me think of how I can incorporate Japanese principles into my life to make it better,” he said. 

            Approximately 6,000 miles to the west, first-year students of Penelope Georges, a lecturer with the Council on Science and Technology (CST), explored Athens, Greece, and the ancients’ philosophy on human enhancement as part of “Body Builders: Living Systems as Art Media.” In class, the students pursued novel approaches to bioengineering with an artistic twist, by transforming EKG readings into music, painting with bacteria and sculpting a dental implant, to name a few. “I’d always been a STEM person in high school, but I used to really love art,” says Joyce Liu ’27. “Honestly, taking this course opened my mind to possible other majors … so I’m even more uncertain of what I want to concentrate in.”

A group shot of about a dozen students surrounded by the ruins of the Epidaurus, the birthplace of the healing god, Asclepios. Students visited the ruins of Epidaurus, the birthplace of the healing god, Asclepios.

            The Freshman Seminar was built to elicit this exact sort of deep self-reflection, says Alec Dun, associate dean and director of the Freshman Seminar Program. The expansive nature of the seminars “allows students to encounter scholarship at a higher-ed level in an eye-opening way,” he said. “And to travel as a part of it is powerful. … It’s a pretty amazing signal that you’re not in Kansas anymore.” The format provides a unique brand of horizon-broadening, as students work closely with a professor in a small class, diving deep into the scholarly inquiries of a discipline, while also forming a tight-knit community with one another, said Dun. 

 The program, which has been run by the Office of the Dean of the College since 1985, now offers 40-plus classes each semester, and a handful incorporate fall, winter or spring breaks for the travel component. In addition to the Athens and Japan trips, a seminar from fall semester has an optional travel component to the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya over the winter break, and next semester there is a course trip planned to Venice, Italy. Seminars are wildly popular among first years, and seats are meted out through a lottery system.

Japan: Drawing Innovation From Nature

Nordenson’s class focused on sustainable architecture through circular construction, a method that foregrounds recycling building materials, which has been a Japanese building tradition since the seventh century. While the group studied modern architectural feats throughout Tokyo and stopped at Kenzo Tange’s iconic 1964 Olympic stadium, they spent the week mostly roaming the Japanese countryside, focusing especially on the Grand Ise Shrines in the Mie Prefecture. These all-wood Shinto shrines are believed to have been first built around 600 C.E. and are rebuilt by specially trained artisans every 20 years. 

Students listen to Guy Nordenson, center, discuss the Kenzo Tange Olympic stadium, which is  behind them. Students listen to Architecture Professor Guy Nordenson, center, discuss the Kenzo Tange Olympic stadium, behind them.

            “The trees must have been planted 200 to 300 years ago, in order to reach the desired size, which means the builders have to be good stewards of the forest,” says Nordenson, who has studied Japanese architecture for decades. He incorporates many of their practices into his own work, which often focuses on creating resilient coastal structures. “You feel this relationship between the natural landscape and the architecture when you visit,” he said.

            Japan’s proximity to the sea, it’s propensity for tsunamis, and the population density in its largest cities also make for excellent teaching opportunities, says Architecture Professor Paul Lewis, who accompanied the excursion that was funded by a Humanities Council Magic Grant for Innovation. “From vast seawalls, to the construction of the oldest wood building still in existence, to the world’s largest city made mostly from concrete, the issue of carbon emissions and climate permeates all of what we saw in Japan. It gives a broader understanding the problems we’re in and we used a view into the past as a way to move forward to the future,” said Lewis.

Ancients’ Wisdom

The trip to Athens was peripatetic in its own way, traversing not so much distance but philosophy and history. “Often, the conversations about bioengineering involve ethics, so the idea for the course was to look at the philosophy on the ethics of human enhancement, starting from the ancient Greeks,” says Georges, who is also the associate director for STEM initiatives at CST. 

Students explore a ruins at Epidaurius. Students explore a ruins at Epidaurius.

Thanks to funding from the Freshman Seminar Program, the group traveled throughout the region around the Greek capital, visiting the Acropolis and the ruined temples of various Greek gods and studying the earliest ethical inquiries into human enhancement, balancing them against modern advancements in medicine and AI. 

“The Greeks thought a lot about boundaries,” says Lilia Burtonpatel ’27, before referencing the famous episode of Icarus and his waxen wings flying too close to the sun. “When should the human condition be left where it is? And what right do we have to surpass some of our mortal flaws?” 

Claire Espinosa ’27 enrolled in the seminar, having already decided against engineering as a concentration, despite an earlier interest. Still, she was grateful to revisit the topic and for the class format. Our trip to Greece epitomizes the ethos behind the Freshman Seminar Program to an incredible extent — it allowed us to fully immerse ourselves in the topic no matter our academic backgrounds,” she said. “And though at times I felt like a random econ major taking this class because it sounded interesting, while others actually wanted to major in bionengineering, the way this course was designed ensured that everybody could contribute something in their own way.”

A group shot of about a dozen students and their instructor near the Acropolis in Greece. CST Lecturer Penelope Georges, third from right, and her group in Athens, outside of the Acropolis.