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MIT Loses Community Service Work-Study Funds

By Christine R. Fry


Federal Work-Study (FWS) funds allocated to students receiving financial aid at MIT are being grossly underused, according to MIT Student Financial Services (SFS).

Jane D. Smith, assistant director of SFS, said that out of $167,000 MIT has received in FWS community service grants for this year, $100,000 has yet to be spent for the 2002 spring semester.

“We’re going to spend as much [of the] money as we can,” Smith said.

The Boston Globe reported Sunday that only two percent of the FWS funds given to MIT last year was spent on students participating in community service projects. Government regulations require that seven percent of FWS funds given to colleges and universities are specifically allocated towards students doing community service projects. By failing to meet the quota, MIT was forced to return approximately $75,000 in unused federal funds.

Smith called this an “oversight,” but said she was optimistic about the program’s future.

Service opportunities lack publicity

One reason the community service FWS grants have not been used may be due to the lack of publicity for service opportunities available to students.

“We haven’t presented [FWS community service] in as attractive a way as we could,” said Sally Susnowitz, director of the Public Service Center. In the future, Susnowitz said, she hopes to help students understand that service can really make an impact in the surrounding community.

Brendan P. Miller ’02 receives FWS funds as a tutor at the Agassiz After School Program. He opted for this job after spending a semester working in the library.

“I thought it would be more interesting,” Miller said. He thought that some FWS students do not perform community service simply because of a lack of awareness of the opportunities. “I think people just hear [about FWS community service programs] by word of mouth. It’s really easy to get involved,” Miller said.

However, Susnowitz added that time plays an important role in what type of FWS position a student chooses. For many students, an on-campus job is easier to manage than off-campus community service work.

Service programs available

Students interested in community service FWS, have a few different options available to them.

For the America Reads program, MIT hired a literacy trainer to instruct students on how to teach elementary school children to read. The students then used these skills to tutor children in the area. “We have spent a lot of time developing the America Reads program,” Smith said. “We normally have 40-50 Work-Study students doing [the program].” This year there are approximately 70 FWS students participating in community service.

“The reason we only have one program like [America Reads] is that it’s pretty intensive to run,” Susnowitz said.

“We know we need to develop more programs. We’re partnering with the Public Service Center to develop some programs for the summer. We’re working on this very quickly,” Smith said. New programs that would qualify as FWS community service are currently being created.

However, programs developed by the PSC and SFS are not the only options for FWS students interested in community service. Students with community service ideas can bring them to the PSC or SFS and get help in developing their proposals. “We’re interested in what students think,” Smith said.

UROPs help students volunteer

In addition to tutoring programs, the PSC and SFS are working jointly to develop service learning classes, service Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programs (UROP), and summer fellowships to increase service opportunities for FWS participants.

Students participating in service learning classes receive credit for volunteering in the community.

“We like the idea that people can meet several needs at once,” Susnowitz said. Through service learning, students can receive FWS money, receive class credit, and participate in community service.

Service UROPs are a relatively new form of UROP. Susnowitz said that one of the functions of a service UROP would be to allow a student to continue or finish a project that was started during service learning. Often, students are not given an opportunity to complete service learning projects because they are limited to a semester time frame.

Dan Relihan ’04 completed the first ever service UROP last semester. He created an online physics resource specifically for physics students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. The UROP allowed Relihan to learn some technical information and a great deal of practical skills.

“My challenge was to get [the physics information] on their level. I enjoyed it,” he said.

Summer programs to be expanded

The PSC is working to expand its Summer Fellowship program, which it hopes will encourage FWS students to participate in community service work. This program pays students for 10 weeks during the summer to help community and non-profit organizations.

The goal of the program is to better community organizations, even after students leave their summer positions. “When [the students] leave, the agency is better off,” Susnowitz said.

FWS part of financial aid

Through the FWS program, undergraduate and graduate students with financial need can work either at their school or in the community to earn money to help pay education expenses. Only students with FWS in their financial aid package can receive payment for community service activities.

Smith said that FWS community service students must be doing work that benefits the public. For example, a student working in a museum is doing community service work because the museum is open to the public.

Some universities comply with this by employing students in the university libraries since, technically, the libraries are open to the public. According to Smith, MIT does not do this because this would “water-down” the community service experience.