Becca Keener’s journey to Princeton is as inspiring as some might say improbable.
Her years before Princeton were challenging and lean. In a family that grew to eight children, she made multiple moves, residing wherever her father could find work in New Jersey, Texas, California and North Carolina. She attended four high schools in two-and-a-half years.
Keener says most of her schooling was substandard, especially in North Carolina, where she attended rural public schools. “We read half a book a semester in my English class in ninth and 10th grade, and I did not write a real essay aside from seventh-grade persuasive essays done in preparation for a state exam.”
Nevertheless, she found solace in books and was driven to learn. “Being in a big family and moving many times, there was a lot of craziness, so many worries, so many responsibilities,” she says. “But I created a world for myself amidst all of this. While everyone else my age was reading Harry Potter, I was reading about nutrition, theology and history. Immersing myself in my academic interests, even outside of schoolwork, gave me a sense of stability when everything else was in flux.”
Her education improved when her family moved back to New Jersey. She enrolled in a private religious school in Montville, New Jersey, for her junior year. Were it not for this brief oasis in learning, she says she never would have been prepared for college.
Overcoming such odds has left its mark. Her adjustment to Princeton, as it is for most first-generation students who are financially disadvantaged, has been difficult at times.
“I see the effects in different areas,” she says. “In the classroom, I initially had a debilitating sense of inferiority, especially in precepts. Most of the other students had a tone of authority to their voice. You could see they had really good schooling and people telling them throughout their lives that their voice mattered and they had important things to say. I couldn’t say I had experienced that in my schooling, so I didn’t know how to participate. That’s been one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome, and I’m still working on it.”
Sharing her story with others, who like her have risen above hardship, has helped. She is a member of the Princeton Hidden Minority Council, a student-run organization for first-generation students. Through this organization and Princeton Faith and Action, she has found friends who are willing to talk, listen and share their burdens.
Because her own experiences have taught her the value of a good education, she has been serving on the executive board of Community House, a Pace Center for Civic Engagement program that supports the educational enrichment of underrepresented local youth.
Academically, Keener is forging a new path. She has spent a lot of time evaluating where her skills, values and needs intersect, and believes she has found that in the Department of Religion and in the Near Eastern studies program. By the end of her sophomore year, she had completed three years of Arabic. She spent part of her summer as a rising sophomore studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan, and she expects to go to Israel in the summer before junior year with the Peace and Dialogue Leadership Initiative.
Ultimately she hopes to work on issues of social justice, religion and peacemaking with either a nongovernmental organization or the federal government.