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Emma Treadway learned how to be a good listener in Kroger Supermarket in her hometown of Amelia, Ohio.
Pulling groceries to fill online orders and chatting with colleagues on her 5 a.m. shift, she witnessed how empathy and stories connect people, in ways that would come to define her Princeton experience.
“There was Dave, who’d been at Kroger for 40 years, he would call me Sunshine,” Treadway said. “There was this taciturn guy in produce whom I kept talking to and found out he forged swords. It was fascinating to hear each person’s story.”
More stories came from her grandfather who hailed from a long line of West Virginia coal miners and hauled coal for long hours from his early 20s, even after watching his own father develop black lung disease. Homeschooled through seventh grade, Treadway and her three siblings took weekly trips to the public library, where she discovered a favorite book about traces of ancient Pompeiian civilization. “I really look back to that book for sparking my curiosity about the real-life ancient world,” she said.
Treadway began studying Latin at age six with her father, a secondary school teacher, composing simple sentences like: “The frog is in the water. The frog is small.” She visited Princeton in 2017 on a class trip with her high school Latin teacher Jim Lipovsky, a 1979 graduate alumnus. She credits Lipovsky for why she chose Princeton, along with the University’s financial aid program, and came to the University as a Questbridge scholar.
She has pursued a classics concentration with a focus on education policy, continuing to study Latin, as well as ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Akkadian.
Her senior thesis explores how some of the basic tenets of Stoicism — a school of philosophy that dates from 300 BCE — can help address problems in K-12 public education. She examines how an emphasis on social and emotional learning, as opposed to purely academic learning, “when combined with a Stoic twist,” can teach students to engage empathetically with the world and address in the classroom inequalities that disproportionately harm children of color, girls and children with disabilities.
Creating a nexus between the ancient world and modern public education
One of Treadway’s first exposures to the Stoics was Epictetus, whom she read in the original Greek. She was captivated by the modern-day relevance of the formerly enslaved man who led a Stoic school in Rome and later in Greece.
“He talks about how to maintain composure if somebody tosses an insult your way, how to identify the emotion and let it go,” Treadway said. “He talks about how you need to realize the only thing you’re in control of, which is how you react to situations — and what you’re not in control of, which is what the other person thinks or says about you.”
After two internships in Washington, D.C., she began to consider ways that public education, viewed through a Stoic lens, could benefit students by fostering these social-emotional skill sets. As a journalist who served as a columnist, associate opinion editor and then editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian, she realized storytelling could be a gateway to transforming policy.
Through Princeton Internships in Civic Service, Treadway spent summer 2020 with Reach Inc., an education nonprofit that supports teens from Washington public schools with social and academic challenges as they prepare to pursue college or a career. Part of her job was to write profiles of the students for the website. “I spent a lot of time talking to them, and listening to their stories,” she said.
In summer 2021, through Princeton’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative, she interned at the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Tasked with sifting through public comments posted on the OCR website in response to proposed new guidelines, Treadway found herself fascinated by the stories parents shared about the difficulties their children were having in school.
She saw a repeated theme. “Parents wrote that instead of their children being taught to think about and manage their emotions, they were just being ignored, stuck in a room by themselves or worse — being restrained or having the police called on them — because they had acted out in class or had anger management issues,” she said.
This clicked with what she had studied in Stoicism — how to recognize and manage your emotions, so that you focus on only what is directly in your control.
Treadway explored the role of empathy through the works of Hierocles, believed to have lived in the second century CE. He draws on the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, or how we construct our self-perception in relation to others.
“Think about concentric circles, and you’re in the center,” she said. “The first circle around you is your family, the next circle your friends, then your community, your fellow countrymen and then the whole world. As a Stoic, the way in which you regard and understand yourself will eventually extend to all those concentric circles. The goal is to become someone who can empathize with and understand the perspectives and stories of the people all the way through the outermost circle.”
Time and again, she saw how these ancient thinkers were relevant to modern-day life.
“We have this huge misconception of these lofty philosophers as people who we can’t relate to, but they’re just normal people,” she said. “They make crude jokes, they’re ridiculous, they have the same kind of problems we do. And if you look into their stories, you’re like, ‘Wow, I can connect with those people!‘ If I can connect with people from 2,000 years ago, there’s no reason I can’t connect with people on the other side of the world today.”
Classics as ‘an innovative force’
Joshua Billings, professor of classics and the dean of undergraduate studies in the department, said Treadway’s thesis is a prime example of how it is possible to learn from humanistic approaches to the past. “She draws on ancient philosophy and literature to enrich and challenge contemporary views and practices of education. It is hard to think of a more vital and necessary project for a humanist today!”
Treadway’s senior thesis adviser Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an associate professor of classics and a 2006 Princeton graduate, noted the ease with which Treadway has bridged the worlds of classics and education policy. “At a time when the university ramps up its investments in innovation, Emma’s work outstandingly exemplifies how the study of the ancient world can be an innovative force in the service of our nation and of humanity,” he said.
Padilla Peralta — whose 2015 memoir “Undocumented” traces his journey as a young child from the Dominican Republic to the U.S., through the New York City shelter system to Princeton and the professoriate — recognizes Treadway’s gifts as a storyteller. He recalls being in a meeting in which she was asked to define what in her view makes for a good journalistic story. “Her response was, ‘A good story will humanize all the players’; I’ve been thinking about that definition ever since,” he said.
Treadway said Padilla Peralta has supported her with generosity, humility and wisdom, whether he was recounting the antics of his 4-year-old twins or challenging her on a passage of her thesis — always wearing his signature Pikachu hat and often with his dog, a Corgi named Boots, at his feet. “He is a grounding and reassuring influence, a huge source of inspiration. Every idea I bring up, he thoroughly interrogates and brings up like five new sources for me to read. I mean, the sheer eloquence, even when talking about ‘Squid Game,’” she said with a smile.
Finding her voice at Princeton — and giving voice to others
Treadway said studying the classics and Stoicism has also been transformative for her own well-being.
Though she’s almost six feet tall, she said she knows what it’s like to feel small and voiceless. “I’ve always been a very quiet person, an introvert and a listener, which helps with journalism, but before I came to Princeton I hadn’t really learned how to speak.”
Her first year she barely spoke in class. “There were people who went to Andover and Exeter, and they knew how to speak and assert themselves. I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ I was also struggling with an eating disorder, so I felt small in that way. I couldn’t think in class because when you’re not eating, you can’t think.”
She credits her care coordination team at Princeton’s Counseling and Psychological Services with helping her heal. With their support, she slowly gained 40 pounds during her first three years at Princeton, which she said made her a clearer thinker and a better leader — and helped her navigate her most difficult semester: spring 2021.
She was in the throes of writing her spring junior paper (JP) — on ways to foster inclusion in the classics field — and spoke frequently with Padilla Peralta, who served as her adviser on that independent work. She was also managing a staff of 400-plus as editor-in-chief at the Prince, amid the pandemic and during a time of racial reckoning and a surge of anti-Asian discrimination. “I was constantly asking: How can we elevate a diversity of stories and seek to humanize, not alienate, those with whom we disagree?” she said.
Treadway was recently named a Spirit of Princeton winner, honoring undergraduates for positive contributions to campus life. In his recommendation letter, Padilla Peralta wrote: “Whenever we met to talk last spring about her JP, our conversations would turn to the Prince, and she would ask me for advice on how to lift the spirits of her peer journalists … She is so exactingly attentive to the psychological well-being of others, and so unfailingly scrupulous about guiding peers to the support systems they need in order to flourish.”
“I re-envisioned my idea of success through Stoicism,” Treadway said. “At the end of the day, if I can look back and say, ‘I was in control of everything I could be in control of, which is how I treated other people, and that I was a good person,’ that’s what success is. Reading the texts that I needed to read for my thesis — specifically Epictetus, Hierocles, Seneca, Cicero, they all talk about that — that’s what helped.”
After graduation, Treadway is moving to Washington, D.C., to be a staff assistant for U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, who is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She said she is excited to be working to represent the same Ohioans with whom she grew up and expand her experience on the Hill. “When you think about education policy, there are a lot of people who do not have a stake in the conversation. I want to identify those silences, excavate those silences,” she said.
She sees herself building on the skill set her Kroger job helped her develop. “I want to find a way to create a voice for the people, whether it’s students, parents or teachers. We need to bring their lived experiences, their stories, to the table.”