Each student who comes to MIT finds his or her own lasting experience of community. Recent thank-you letters from scholarship recipients reveal that one student’s highlight is “being part of the largest dance troupe on campus”; for another, it’s “serving in a soup kitchen every week”; for yet another, it’s “traveling to Japan and learning about my heritage.” Just to come to this community, however—or to stay in it—many students struggle with personal and financial challenges. Knowing all too well how difficult that can be, many in MIT’s wider community of alumni have banded together with support of those students in mind.
“I feel a special bond to those who are first in their family to go to college.” So says John Velasco ’05, SM ’06, who brought his classmates together to establish the Class of 2005 FirstGen Scholarship Fund, which offers four-year scholarships to students who are the first in their families to attend a four-year college. “As a FirstGen,” he says, “I know from personal experience how critical alumni support was to making my MIT dream come true.” Organizing the FirstGen Fund took place in the lead-up to the Class of 2005’s 10th Reunion. The class voted to establish the fund and donated enough to endow it. Currently one MIT student receives this scholarship, and Velasco says the fund “continues to generate sustained support from classmates each year.”
In the 1960s, Ernest Cohen ’64 was one of just 12 African- American students on campus. “One of the main goals for BAMIT [Black Alumni at MIT] upon its founding in the late 1970s was to ‘give back’ by financially assisting black MIT students,” Cohen recalls. “After many discussions, a fund was formed, and a nucleus of 30-plus donors stepped forward. Through the years since, more and more black alumni, with their corporate matches, supported the BAMIT Fund, and it steadily grew.” Cohen and Kenneth Armstead ’75, both former BAMIT presidents, played pivotal roles in renaming the scholarship in honor of astronaut and physicist Ronald McNair PhD ’77, whose promising career as a space shuttle mission specialist was cut short by his death in the 1986 Challenger explosion. “Like McNair, I came to MIT from the South and was enthusiastic about math, science, and music,” says Cohen. “And, like Ron McNair, I was blessed with black high school teachers who were well educated, with master’s degrees, and who personally nurtured my development.” The Ronald E. McNair (1977) Scholarship Fund has supported at least three scholars per year since 2009. One early recipient was Kristala Jones Prather ’94, who is now the Arthur D. Little Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT.
“We want students to feel comfortable asking for help when they need it.” That’s how David Randall, senior associate dean of student support and well-being, summarizes the spirit of the Class of 1954 Good Samaritan/Mitzvah Fund. Still in its early stages, the fund puts aid in students’ hands during times of crisis. Harvey Steinberg ’54 and Joe Blake ’54 came up with this idea together. As Blake explains: “Emergency is one word, but there is a certain circumstance for students who fall through the cracks—if a student isn’t eating, they can’t do the work.” MIT looked to Randall to administer this new type of spontaneous aid. “Most students who come to us need something immediately,” Randall explains. “All students have to do is visit their dean in Student Support Services and identify a need.” The department is spreading the word to students about the emergency funds in part through a new coalition called Accessing Resources MIT and through a new Emergency Fund & Food Resources website. Usually quiet about giving, Blake says he is now willing to speak passionately about fundraising because, as he puts it, “I see the letters of thanks that Dean Randall gets from students. But for this, they would not have made it through MIT.”