Newby Parton grew up in McMinnville, Tennessee, a small town where nearly a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line, and most of the students who graduate from the only public high school stay pretty close to home.
Parton broke that mold not only because he left Tennessee, but also because he believes he is one of only two students from his school who has ever studied as an undergraduate student at an Ivy League institution.
He says he never intended to apply to a college outside of Tennessee, in part because students from his school historically have been encouraged to apply to nearby state schools. But Parton began to set his sights elsewhere when, as a rising junior, he was accepted into a summer program called the Governor’s School for the Humanities. While there, he met another student who ultimately was admitted to Princeton. “We kept in touch, and I thought I would put in an application here,” he says. With money he saved from essay contest earnings, he applied to 14 schools, with Princeton being his first choice.
At Princeton, Parton’s initial focus was on writing. His first creative writing course was with Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Tracy K. Smith. “It blew me away,” he says. “It was a great experience, and I wrote the best poetry I have ever written. As a bonus, every week I got feedback from nine very gifted students and Tracy Smith herself.”
The course convinced him that his strength was in storytelling. He experimented with children’s stories, and for a class project on Dante he converted “The Inferno,” a decidedly child-unfriendly book, into a children’s story. “I only did the first four circles because after that you get into the violent parts,” he says
But Parton is not confining himself to storytelling. He has written several opinion columns for The Daily Princetonian, which he now serves as an editor. He acknowledges some have been quite controversial. “I have a lot of opinions,” he explains. “I think the work of an opinion writer is to make people think about an issue in new ways, so that’s what I have aspired to do.”
Last summer, Parton challenged himself to think about international affairs in a new way through a summer Global Seminar titled: “The Global Ghetto,” with the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. “The class was extraordinary. We spent six weeks in Italy—three in Rome and three in Venice. It allowed for significant personal growth.” The course traces the birth and spread of the ghetto as a social form and as an idea throughout world history. “It helped me view my studies at Princeton through a new lens.”
Today, as a Princeton School of Public and International Affairs concentrator, Parton is engaged in independent work that speaks directly to his career goal of becoming a federal judge. “I came in thinking I would study English or economics,” he explains, but a junior research seminar titled “Courts, Judges and Controversies” has sparked his interest in a new career path. He still takes journalism courses to keep up with the craft of writing. “I joke with my friends that I will be a children’s book author who is a benchwarmer on the Supreme Court.” He is one of 10 students selected for the 2017 cohort of the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative (SINSI), designed to encourage, support and prepare the nation’s top students to pursue careers in the U.S. federal government.
Parton says he is grateful for the opportunities he has had at Princeton. “I didn’t expect to excel in these ways. I had come from a struggling public school.” He credits access to faculty as one reason he has found success in his studies. “To have a class with a Pulitzer Prize winner as a first-year student with only nine other undergraduates is something that would never have been in my dreams just a few years ago.”