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Student leader Velasco earns Mitchell Scholarship

John Velasco, who is in the last year of the five-year S.B. and S.M. program in political science at MIT, is the first MIT student chosen to receive the George J. Mitchell Scholarship.
John Velasco, who is in the last year of the five-year S.B. and S.M. program in political science at MIT, is the first MIT student chosen to receive the George J. Mitchell Scholarship.
Photo / L. Barry Hetherington

Political science graduate student John Velasco, a well-known campus leader, has become the first MIT student to receive the George J. Mitchell Scholarship, which will provide him with one year of graduate work in Ireland.

Currently enrolled in the five-year S.B. and S.M. program in political science at MIT, Velasco will earn a second master's degree in international studies at the University of Limerick during the 2006-2007 school year.

The Mitchell Scholarship program started in 1998 with an endowment from the Irish government. The award recognizes outstanding young Americans by funding a year of study at universities in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Velasco is one of 12 scholars nationwide to receive the 2006-2007 award.

Velasco's combination of interests and involvement made him an ideal candidate for the Mitchell award, which seeks to honor those who "exhibit superior records of academic excellence, leadership and public service," according to the scholarship web site.

A native of La Mesa, Calif., Velasco's work ethic was honed over years of chopping, peeling and flipping in his family's restaurant. "I did a little bit of everything," said Velasco with a laugh.

The youngest of nine children and the first in his family to finish college, Velasco first learned of MIT through the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Conference for young Latinos in California, and decided to apply "on a whim."

He decided to come east after his first campus visit. "I had this magical feeling the first time I walked into Lobby 7," said Velasco, who said he was won over by "the enthusiasm and drive of the people here."

Since 2003, Velasco has worked with the MIT Public Service Center in many ways, serving as fellow, volunteer and staff member. In 2003, he created a math outreach program called imath that links Cambridge Public School eighth graders with MIT students.

Between 2003 and 2005, the program grew from two schools with 20 eighth graders to five schools with 80 students.

Because of his work with imath, Velasco was one of five students honored nationwide with the Howard Swearer Student Humanitarian Award last year.

"He's a creative thinker, an outstanding communicator and an organized presence in what is often a chaotic business," said Assistant Dean Sally Susnowitz, director of the Public Service Center.

"John demonstrates the power of combining humanitarianism and practical knowledge with exceptional talents," Susnowitz said.

Reaching beyond school is what education is all about, said Velasco, who describes MIT as a school that is "not just about the academics."

Velasco has been involved in diverse projects. During the 2004 presidential election, he traveled to Cleveland as part of the "Race at Case," taking part in a national student debate that aired on CNN and C-Span one night before the national vice presidential debate.

In August 2003 Velasco traveled to Scotland for a month to serve as an MIT student representative to the Cambridge-MIT Institute Enterprisers Program.

In 2005, he spent two weeks in Haifa, Israel, as part of Hibur, a campus organization that links MIT with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Velasco has also served as the campus liaison to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

A leader on campus as well, Velasco serves as a student representative to the MIT Task Force on the Educational Commons. Among other things, he hopes to encourage more students to focus on study-abroad opportunities, he said.

Velasco also served a term as vice president of the senior class in 2005. He took part in the MIT LeaderShape conference in 2004 and served as assistant facilitator for the same conference last year.
Velasco plans to use his time in Ireland to observe the Irish education system firsthand. "They (the Irish) do a good job of funding their education," said Velasco. He said he is also looking forward to exploring Ireland and traveling around Europe.

"It is a generous program," Velasco said of the Mitchell scholarship, which provides tuition, room, board and stipends, including one exclusively for travel. "I am really looking forward to it," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 8, 2006 (download PDF).

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