Every spring break as an MIT undergraduate, Genevieve Ricart has given up her vacation to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, helping to build houses. This year, there was no question that Ricart, now a senior, along with a team of MIT volunteers, would head to the New Orleans area to help clean up and rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

“I just love doing this kind of work, reaching out to other people when I have time off. It’s one of my passions,” says Ricart, 21, a brain and cognitive sciences major.

Ricart has organized community service projects for her dormitory — working at a food bank, serving at homeless shelters, running clothing drives, and helping to create a children’s book in Braille for the National Braille Press. Even with all of those activities, Ricart enjoys using her spring break to give back because she can spend more than a few hours on a project.

“During the school year it’s really busy and I don’t have much time to do things like this. Spring break is a good time because you can take a full week,” she says.

Ricart was one of about 70 MIT students who gave up their spring vacation to travel to New Orleans with various groups. In addition, the MIT Graduate Student Council has provided funding for relief projects in the Gulf region, and the MIT Public Service Center has provided fellowships for several students to help out with relief efforts. The Center is also offering students fellowships to work in that region over the summer.

Ricart’s group helped an organization called Common Ground Collective gut two houses and a warehouse to prepare for rebuilding. The students spent a week working with peers from colleges around the country, sleeping in a warehouse on a cold, concrete floor, about 100 to a room. The students shared two working showers and ate donated food. They spent their days wearing special suits, respirators, and goggles as they ripped down moldy walls and took the buildings to their studs.


“We had to go in and take out all the furniture. The couches were really moldy. The refrigerators, oh my goodness, they were nasty,” she says. The small one-story houses in which they were working were flooded to about eye-level and had to be completely gutted.

“My heart went out to these people who had to suffer through this. I was glad we could help. The progress we made in just one day with 20 people was amazing. It was nice to know we could make such a big difference by getting so many people together,” Ricart says.

Ricart’s parents, a computer scientist and a nutritionist who live in Salt Lake City, have always encouraged her community service initiatives, which she began as a child in scouting and church groups.

“Back then, it was picking up litter around the neighborhood and a little later it was singing at nursing homes,” she says. As she grew older, she worked in soup kitchens, delivered meals to HIV/AIDS patients, and traveled to Mexico to build a house for a family that had lived under cardboard and a tarp.


Phil Ilten, a second-year student majoring in physics and mathematics, was with Ricart in Louisiana, in a group led by MIT Protestant Chaplain Rev. John Wuestneck. Volunteering during spring break gives him perspective, Ilten says.

“It makes you realize your problems are not so big,” says Ilten, who is 20. “Helping is critical for society. Society has given so much to me, and it’s time to give back. That’s the way society works. I’m indebted.”

Ilten, whose father is a lawyer in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and whose mother was a teacher and died when he was much younger, saw the week in New Orleans as a chance to use skills he does not use in physics or mathematics classes.

“Sometimes when you’re at MIT struggling with a very abstract problem, it’s a relief to struggle with a non-abstract problem. You face problems you can see,” he says. “If you work with paper all the time, it’s nice to sit down and say, ‘Let’s exercise my real world skills.’”

Ricart and Ilten did not meet the owners of the houses where they worked, although they did meet a neighbor, a man in his 70s, who was living in a trailer on his property. He told the students how he evacuated, but how another neighbor had to be dragged from his house because he did not want to leave, and another, who also did not want to leave, died in her house.

In New Orleans, the students learned about each other, felt good about giving back, and realized how fortunate they are, Wuestneck says.

“Everyone was so grateful,” says Ricart. “One woman told us, ‘You guys know you’re going straight to heaven.’”