Rebecca Cao ‘20 and the Princeton Creative Arts and Humanities Symposium


When Rebecca Cao ‘20 arrived on Princeton University’s campus on Friday, October 18, she was so excited she “couldn’t stop smiling.” Cao was one of 92 high school seniors from across the United States who the university selected to attend its annual Creative Arts and Humanities Symposium from October 18 to 20. The word symposium, derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “lively discussion after a meal” describes the event perfectly—students worked with Princeton faculty in small classes of around twelve people to explore the meanings in stories from all over the world.

Among the classes Cao took were “Dark Secrets and Enlightenment in Japanese Noh Plays,” a fiction workshop with writer Aleksandar Hemon, and “Zora Neale Hurston’s Visual Storytelling,” which was Cao’s favorite. During the class, students answered the question: “How is Hurston asking us to see race?” through an analysis Zora Neale Hurston’s videos of the Harlem Renaissance as well as her essay “How It Feels to be Colored Me,” blending both sources to better understand life as an African-American person during the Harlem Renaissance.

“I especially liked this process because I love close reading and analyzing even the smallest of details in various media, whether they are texts or videos,” Cao said. “I also loved the professor who taught the class, Professor Womack, because she was so passionate about the lesson and explained everything clearly.”

Another favorite of Cao’s was the fiction workshop with Hemon, who is currently working on the script for the movie Matrix 4. The class encouraged students to share stories about themselves and explored the techniques involved in developing a well-crafted narrative. No matter the class, however, Cao loved the small and friendly class sizes: “Because they were so small, we had more involved discussions. As we all shared our thoughts, one idea led to another—culminating in a natural flow of conversation.”

In the time between classes, Cao learned how Princeton students spend their free time. On Friday night, she saw Lookingglass Theatre’s production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at McCarter Theatre Center. The play delighted her because it “interwove the story of Shelley’s life (and her writing of the story) with the actual plot of Frankenstein.” In the evenings, groups of students and their college hosts—current Princeton students—bonded over their experiences and their origins. Cao met many students from southwestern states who were “shook” by New Jersey’s autumn foliage. From start to finish, the seminar forged lasting friendships among varied people with similar interests in the arts and humanities.

When the symposium closed on Sunday morning, Cao “was so sad, [she] didn’t want to leave at all.” The experience did reinforce her hope of studying the humanities at a school like Princeton in the future—which means one day, not far from now, she may once again step back onto Princeton’s campus with a smile on her face.