Interview with Princeton AlumniCorps’ New Board Chair, John Fish ’55
John Fish ’55 is a founder of Princeton AlumniCorps and served as the Program Leader of the Project 55 Fellowship Program for 20 years. He developed the PP55 program in Chicago, and after a few years encouraged Northwestern University and the University of Chicago to create similar programs. The three programs work closely together, offering joint programming and a wide like-minded community for fellows.
For nearly 50 years John has been involved in numerous community organizations and associations in Chicago. From 1969 to 1997 he was on the faculty of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Urban Studies Program, an off-campus experiential semester for students from 13 Midwest colleges. John was appointed as the Chair of the Board of Princeton AlumniCorps on October 1.
Q: Your recent appointment as Board Chair is your third time serving on the Board. Why did you initially get involved with the organization and what has kept you engaged for all these years?
After the Washington meeting, my classmate Steve Boyd ’55 came out and told me about the original idea for Princeton Project 55. I immediately got excited about it. I hadn’t known Princeton University to do anything like this before, and it sounded great. My enthusiasm carried me through the first meetings, and into helping to put together the founding document. In that first year, we had three fellows in Chicago and three in Washington.
My reasons for remaining engaged with Princeton AlumniCorps are the same as the reasons for starting my connection. I love working with young people, and love staying in touch with so many interesting organizations. It helps to keep me involved in the city (Chicago) and is very inspiring.
Q: Why do you think the goals and programs of Princeton AlumniCorps still resonate with people some 22 years on?
The first year out of college is so important for young people. It’s an opportunity for recent graduates to explore different possibilities and interests. Once you get involved with a permanent job, you don’t often get the opportunity to do that again. Giving young people early exposure to public service careers through Princeton AlumniCorps will always be really valuable. I continue to be interested when a young person finds a goal or project that they find exciting.
The opportunities the Project 55 Fellowship Program provides are really exciting. Over 22 years conducting this program, Princeton AlumniCorps has developed a large community of alumni and organizations interested in the public interest. Community Volunteers, one of our new programs, leverages our dynamic network to connect alumni from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s with innovative volunteer opportunities in the nonprofit sector. Emerging Leaders, our program for aspiring nonprofit leaders, continues to develop our alumni and their impact. Our programs connect alumni with the many rewarding career and volunteer opportunities that exist in the nonprofit sector.
Q: You have often talked about how the PP55 program puts young Princetonians into challenging situations outside of the classroom. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
The first year I was involved with Princeton AlumniCorps, a fellow called Sarah was working for an organization called Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, headed up by Quentin Young. It was a great organization, but at that stage only just starting up. There was only one other staff member – the Executive Director, and Sarah. During the first year, Sarah came up to me and said John, “the Executive Director has left and I’m the only staff person, I need help.” To Sarah’s credit, she ended up keeping the organization alive, and raising money until they found a new Executive Director. It was such an experience for someone straight out of college and to this day, Quentin still speaks of her highly.
A lot of other interesting stories came from fellows working in North Lawndale in Chicago, where many of the organizations had a large African American membership. For fellows from very different backgrounds it was such a valuable learning experience, and so exciting to work with such an effective community group. I remember one woman who did a fellowship at an African American faith-based community organization in Chicago. She was Jewish and she asked me, “John, do you think I’ll fit in?” The first week she was there, they had a big retreat. It was so different to her existing experience, but she was accepted straight away and became immediately involved in the community.
Q: What role do you think the organization plays in the broader Princeton community and in communities around the country?
I think the greatest role we play is as brokers between nonprofit organizations and alumni. We help nonprofit organizations to find talented people, as well as helping alumni to get into something really challenging. It has a great impact on the community, because we can help these talented, smart, Princeton graduates to use their skills in important areas.
Q: What do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities you will encounter in your upcoming term as Board Chair? And what is your hope for the future of Princeton AlumniCorps?
One of the things that I’d like to focus on is to find new ways to energize Princeton alumni across the year groups. With only four or five staff members, we are limited in capacity, and I’d like to see our programming flourish – managed and led by alumni. Our board, and our wide network of volunteers, is multigenerational. Our two newest programs, Community Volunteers and Emerging Leaders, embody Princeton AlumniCorps’ recent growth, and the involvement of alumni of all ages with the organization. Our aim is to encourage and develop alumni who have the capacity and passionate leadership to deliver and manage their own innovative programs. I think the fundamental goal of AlumniCorps should be to continue thriving as an organization run by alumni for alumni, across the generations.
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