At first, MIT student Carina Fung was taken aback when students in the Washington, DC, elementary school where she volunteered during freshman-year spring break asked her if she had children. Then she realized that some of the students' mothers were as young as she is.
Instead of spending spring break sunbathing in Florida, about 70 MIT students opted to spend the week of March 23-27 teaching science and math to "at-risk" kids in Washington, Baltimore and San Juan, Puerto Rico; running youth programs at a camp in Pennsylvania; and building affordable housing in Washington and Philadelphia.
The students are members of MIT Alternative Spring Break (ASB), a student group affiliated with the Public Service Center. Started three years ago by Anthony Ives (SB '96), ASB organizes week-long community service trips for students who are looking for a service-oriented alternative to beach-bound vacations.
ASB students "have gained some hands-on experience doing meaningful work, interacting with people outside MIT and gaining a brand-new perspective of many problems others face in the real world," said Mr. Ives, who returned to MIT after he graduated to realize his vision of a creating an MIT version of this volunteer organization, which already existed at some other schools.
While ASB started out with about 25 loosely organized students who all taught in Washington, DC, it has grown into a more diverse initiative that raises money from the MIT administration and other sources to send students who are serious about making a difference to a variety of locations.
Ms. Fung, a junior in chemical engineering who is now president of ASB, and Tam Nguyen, a junior in biology who coordinated the Washington, DC, Teach for America group, were participants in the first group as well. They have seen the organization grow to a point where it has almost tripled in the number of participants, elected officers and created an application form. The result, they say, is a more focused effort that ensures that the volunteers and the organizations they work for will get the most out of the experience.
This year, students participated in four initiatives. Through the national housing organization Habitat for Humanity, MIT students painted, dry-walled, framed, roofed and did other construction work on low-income housing in Philadelphia and Washington.
Through Teach for America, in which recent college graduates commit to teaching in underserved schools for two years, MIT students developed and taught lesson plans on science and math topics with Teach for America teachers in classes of inner-city preschool to high school students in Baltimore and Washington. The volunteer efforts of Jeremy Lueck, a junior in computer science, and Jessica Wang, a sophomore in biology, were featured in a March 28 story in The Baltimore Sun on the pair's teaching efforts at Tench Tilghman Elementary School in Baltimore.
For the first time, an environmental trip was also offered. At Camp Speers in rural Speers, PA, MIT students worked as camp counselors with high school students who visited the camp.
And Spanish-speaking MIT students developed and taught lessons on science and math to Spanish-speaking students in middle and highschools in San Juan and Culebra, Puerto Rico.
The inner-city schools served by ASB are a far cry from the public schools attended by Ms. Fung in Bridgewater, NJ, and Ms. Nguyen in Downingtown, PA.
Ms. Fung learned that school was a safe haven for some of the city kids, many of whom walked home alone to crime-ridden neighborhoods. Ms. Nguyen said there were metal detectors at the doors of the school where she taught youngsters about fractions and how to use chopsticks.
"I think a lot of people never had experience with this kind of environment. These are intelligent kids in an unfortunate situation," Ms. Nguyen said. Through ASB, "we try to relate to their lives."
"I don't think I realized how difficult it is to learn in that environment," Ms. Fung said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 8, 1998.