Princeton Pivots

When a spike in COVID-19 infections in New Jersey in March prompted the Princeton University campus to cancel in-person programming for the remainder of the spring semester, faculty, students and staff had to quickly adapt on-campus events and in-person programs into online opportunities. Travel was severely limited, but Princetonians pivoted: groundbreaking research conferences became Zoom gatherings and communities convened virtually. 

Since, the Princeton community has adapted to this new environment. Students harnessed technology and discovered new ways to connect, communicate and collaborate. Faculty cemented relationships beyond borders. Researchers found large and diverse audiences online. Staff stepped up, and mastered the technology to make this all possible.

Fung Global Fellows Program addresses challenges of imagining internationalism and solidarity during the pandemic

By Pooja Makhijani, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies

Ayça Çubukçu, a 2019-2020 Fung Global Fellow, associate professor of human rights at London School of Economics and Political Science, and co-director of LSE Human Rights, has deep research interests in the challenges of imagining internationalism and anti-war solidarity in the global context, and the conference she conceived for the fellowship’s spring 2020 calendar focused on just this. It was to be a small conversation, to be held somewhere in the greater New York City area, among like-minded academics and activists about the political and intellectual barriers to forging an international solidarity movement. 

But then COVID-19 swept the globe and, given this extraordinary situation, Çubukçu and her collaborators decided to hold their conversation online and reframe the event: “The Fate of Internationalism: Talking Solidarity in a Pandemic.”

“We did not amend the group of invited speakers, but our audience suddenly became global,” she says. Over 500 participants from around the world registered to listen to the virtual conversation. “The speakers had to confront conceptually the novel challenge of imagining internationalism in the context of the pandemic.” The event featured insight from Anthony Alessanddrini, associate professor of English at Kingsborough Community College and the master of arts program in Middle Eastern studies at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York; Noura Erakat, assistant professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University; and Christina Heatherton, assistant professor of American studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. 

The pandemic had governments centering the well-being of their national populations, rather than thinking in any form of international solidarity, Çubukçu explained. “And the creation of an international audience online also made evident the limitations of our own [location in the United States] in the particular political imaginary and idiom of the United States,” she says. “The event proved to be a collective meditation on internationalism and its challenges in the contemporary moment.”

Jeremy Adelman, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, who directed the program for the academic year, agreed that the event’s “more global” audience was both a triumph and challenge. “[Digital] increases the scale of what you can do,” he says. “Going online creates the possibility of increasing heterogeneity [of participants].”

The event also raised questions about the lines between politics and academics. “We also learned that the participants were not necessarily on the same page regarding the question of the state, although they were all committed to an internationalist politics centering the need for solidarity across borders — hence the desire to hold a consequent event to explore these differences.”

“The Fate of Internationalism: Talking Solidarity in a Pandemic,” was co-sponsored by the Fung Global Fellows Program and the department of sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The Fung Global Fellows Program, administered by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, brings together international research scholars from the social sciences and humanities around a common topic. For the 2019-20 academic year, the scholars worked on “Thinking Globally” and explored how ideas frame the understanding of interests and the making of institutions that have yielded commonness and conflict across and within borders.

Africa Summit organizers bring entrepreneurs together from a distance

By Alexandra Jones

The student organizers of Princeton University’s Africa Summit found a way to convene their community, in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, with an online discussion led by young entrepreneurs working to create positive change on the continent. 

The Africa Summit steering committee had hoped to build on the success of 2019’s inaugural event, which brought 200 attendees to campus for two days of cross-disciplinary discussion and networking with academics, advocates, government officials and entrepreneurs.

The students decided to bring a portion of their programming online, convening a panel of young tech entrepreneurs in Africa to share the stories behind their startups as well as their strategies for responding to the pandemic. The webinar ”From Startup to COVID: Entrepreneurs Share Experiences” featured speakers Ugwem Eneyo, co-founder and CEO of Shyft Power Solutions; Feleg Tsegaye, founder of Deliver Addis; Vivian Nwakah, CEO and founder of Medsaf; and Africave co-founder Kennedy Ekezie.

Bayode Okusanya ’20 moderated the session, which brought together 160 attendees from 19 countries via online videoconferencing platform Zoom on April 17. 

“I’ve never done anything like this and never thought I would be doing anything like this,” says Okusanya, who joined the steering committee last fall as vice president of finance. “It was a new experience for everyone — for the planning team and for our guest entrepreneurs. Everyone’s just trying to adapt to this new environment and new changes.”

During the webinar, entrepreneurs took turns sharing stories about their experiences finding their passion, the challenges in building partnerships and teams on the ground in Africa, and strategies for securing funding before answering questions from attendees. 

The Africa Summit was founded to create a space for critical thought and discussion around Africa on campus — not only to demonstrate the importance of Africa studies at Princeton, but also to welcome scholars, entrepreneurs, scientists and government leaders working on the continent into the Princeton community.

Only 30 percent of webinar attendees were affiliated with the university, a figure that indicates to organizers how the summit has already begun to raise Princeton’s profile in the area of Africa studies. “This shows that at Princeton, people actually care about Africa, and it’s a place for quality research on Africa,” says Bunmi Otegbade *19, who co-chaired the inaugural summit while pursuing his master’s degree in public policy at the Princeton School of International Affairs. He currently works as Africa engagement manager with PIIRS. 

“From Startup to COVID” also gave attendees an opportunity to hear first-person accounts of life in cities like Lagos and Addis Ababa, with panelists speaking about how COVID-19 has affected everyday life and created problems that creative businesses can help solve. For example, being locked down at home rather than going to work means that many people in Nigeria are without power for most of the day — something that, Eneyo’s company, Shyft, hopes to address with its hardware. 

For James Lee ’21, co-director of the Africa Summit steering committee, the webinar also gave student organizers the opportunity to see their hard work come to fruition in some way before the end of the semester, despite the full-fledged in-person event being postponed. 

“Both the virtual panel and what’s been going on behind the scenes have been the culmination of so many tasks by so many volunteers,” he says. “I’m really grateful to be a part of that again.”

“From Startup to COVID: Entrepreneurs Share Experiences” was sponsored by Africa Summit at Princeton and The Program in African Studies.

Inaugural Chadha Center conference explores urbanization and sustainability

By Emily Eckart, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Even though cities occupy only three percent of the land surface, they’re transforming global flows of energy, global flows of water. They’re affecting health and well-being at scales that we really haven’t seen before in the history of our planet.

Anu Ramaswami, the Sanjay Swani ’87 Professor of India Studies, director of the Chadha Center, and professor of civil and environmental engineering, PIIRS, and the High Meadows Environmental Institute

An estimated 400 million new residents will migrate to Indian cities by 2050, necessitating major changes in urban infrastructure and planning. On March 27 and 28, M.S. Chadha Center for Global India addressed the challenges and opportunities of this mass movement of people in its inaugural conference, “Urban Sustainability Transitions in India and the World: Advancing Science and Policy.”

“We wanted to understand those challenges and solutions that connect India to the rest of the world — not just India within its region of South Asia, but India globally,” says Stephen Kotkin, the John P. Birkelund ’52 Professor in History and International Affairs and director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Affairs (PIIRS), in introductory remarks.

The conference, originally conceived as an in-person on campus event, pivoted to an online series of Zoom panels due to the coronavirus outbreak. It brought together 53 speakers from India, the U.S. and international organizations to discuss how India’s approach during this transition will affect sustainability worldwide. With the new online format, which featured three public panels, more than 450 people registered to attend the conference from around the world.

The conference used this overarching theme — of India’s connection to the world — to examine cities. “We’re now living on an urban planet,” says Anu Ramaswami, the Sanjay Swani ‘87 Professor of India Studies, director of the Chadha Center, and professor of civil and environmental engineering, PIIRS, and the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI). “Even though cities occupy only three percent of the land surface, they’re transforming global flows of energy, global flows of water. They’re affecting health and well-being at scales that we really haven’t seen before in the history of our planet.”

The opening panel, “Urban Sustainability Innovations in India and the World,” examined India’s sustainability trajectory. The second panel, “The Urban Food System: the U.S., India and Africa,” drew connections as far ranging as sustainability and culture. The final panel, “How Artificial Intelligence (AI) Research in India Can Impact the World and Transform Science,” brought together academics and industry leaders and focused on advancing the fundamental science of AI through new applications.

In addition to the public panels, members of the academic community were invited to three additional closed-door sessions focused on air pollution, energy transitions and water, led by Ramaswami and Jessica Seddon, visiting research scholar at Princeton and global lead for air quality at the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The conference was hosted by the M.S. Chadha Center for Global India and co-sponsored by PIIRS, HMEI, and the Metropolis Project at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.