Loan Assistance Keeps Graduate Dreams of Public Service Careers Alive

The May 25 commencement at Manchester College, a small liberal arts school near Fort Wayne, Ind., will be much the same as commencement at colleges everywhere: awards, speeches, caps and gowns, and cheers from happy seniors and parents.One thing will be different, though. About half the graduates will be wearing green ribbons pinned to their gowns. A note in the commencement program will explain that these students have signed the following statement:"I pledge to investigate and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job opportunity I consider."Troy E. Lucas, 21, is one of the hundred or so graduates taking the college's environmental and social pledge, now in its ninth year."I think I can make a difference," said Lucas, who plans to work in a mental health center after graduation. "I recycle now and do what I can for the environment. I want to make sure I continue to do as much after I graduate."Activists at California's Humboldt State University came up with the idea for a graduation pledge in 1987 as a way to promote social awareness and responsibility. A year later, Manchester students adopted the pledge, which is now a campus tradition."It seems like it has always been a part of the graduation ceremony," said Kristi A. Zimmerman, 22, a leader of the Manchester pledge movement this year. She plans to begin graduate studies next year in higher education counseling.Humboldt State, located in Arcata, Calif., also makes the pledge a regular part of graduation ceremonies. Humboldt State and Manchester both have long traditions of social and environmental activism.Humboldt State graduates taking the pledge wear multicolored ribbons pinned to their gowns. After they receive their diplomas, participating seniors walk to a nearby table and sign the pledge.At Manchester College, students receive a wallet-sized card with the pledge on it. Students say the pledge helps them remember their ideals at a time when the pressures of getting ahead and making money are greatest."It has made me more aware of the environment -- and how much people waste," said Edith M. Conn, 24, a 1995 Manchester College graduate who took the pledge. "I don't carry it with me now. I just remember it."Conn works as a youth director for St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Middlebury, Ind.Neil Wollman, a psychology professor at Manchester and the faculty coordinator of the national pledge program, said it is more than a consciousness-raising device. "Our hope is that if enough people do it, it's not just symbolic. It can actually have an effect," he said.As it is worded, the pledge is nonideological, and it could lead students with different beliefs to very different actions. "It is probably going to draw more people on the left than the right, but people can define it as they want," Wollman said.While many college graduates attend the nation's top law schools, medical schools, business schools and other institutions to qualify for entry to high-paying careers, others undertake graduate studies to work in the public service sector. These graduates may face tens of thousands of dollars in graduate loans but want to accept relatively low paying jobs of social commitment.To help them, dozens of such programs now offer what is known as "public service loan assistance."Under such programs, graduates who go to work for nonprofit organizations or perform other public service receive help paying off their education loans. Some institutions simply "forgive" a portion of the debt, while others offer cash grants.Institutions including Stanford Business School, Harvard Law School, Yale School of Management and Georgetown Law School offer some form of public service loan aid.The help allows graduates who owe tens of thousands of dollars in school loans to accept low-paying jobs at legal aid agencies, relief organizations, environmental groups and domestic violence prevention programs.Michael S. Alevy, 39, is a 1996 graduate of Vermont Law School who works as a public defender in New Haven, Conn. He said that in January the first of two $2,000 grants he will receive this year "arrived like manna from God."He has about $80,000 in education loans and makes about $30,000 a year in a temporary job with no benefits. He said his monthly loan obligations are about the same as a house payment."It has meant the world to me," Alevy said of the grant. "It has allowed me to do what I think is very important work."Pressure from students led to the establishment of public service loan aid, according to Francine Hahn, organizer for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Public Interest Law."Most of them were started by student initiatives. Even if one has been established, students want to see how they can improve it," Hahn said.A year ago, law students at the University of Denver began raising money for grants to graduates who go into public service. By holding charity auctions and collecting donations, the students have raised $30,000 so far, with a goal of $100,000, which would be an endowment for a continuing grant program.The movement to promote public service has spread to business schools, which a decade ago were known simply as places where students went to learn how to make money.Several business schools now offer public service loan aid. Last year, nearly all Stanford business students pledged 2 percent of their summer earnings to support fellow students doing volunteer work for nonprofit organizations."A lot of MBA students are contradicting the image of MBAs in the '80s, and do have broader concerns than just making a lot of money," said Nancy Katz, executive director of San Francisco-based Students for Responsible Business, a three-year-old organization that now has 1,100 business student and alumni members.Are today's college graduates more committed to social and environmental causes than previous graduates?Robert L. Sigmon, senior associate for the Council of Independent Colleges, believes activism on campuses comes in cycles. He points to the founding of the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America in the 1960s, public service programs during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and religious-based missionary movements in the early 1900s. "Every 30 years or so, it sort of pops up, this call to public service," says Sigmon, an adviser on student community service to the council, an organization of 425 private liberal arts schools. "What's new now is this relationship to higher education."According to Sigmon, colleges and universities now are actively supporting public service for students and graduates, and not simply out of altruism. Institutions also view public service as an important learning experience, he said.Jonathan Hutson, 32, of Keene, N.H., has long wanted a career helping abused and neglected children. The New York University Law School graduate has $90,000 in education loans, which he has to start paying soon.If all goes well, Hutson expects to get a job that would pay him $28,000 a year. With $9,000 in annual public service aid from New York University, Hutson thinks he can get by financially. Meanwhile, many of his classmates are making $85,000 a year or more on Wall Street."The money doesn't impress me. It's not what I'm interested in," said Hutson. "I work only for causes I believe in and with people I trust. How many corporate attorneys can say that?"Robert Preer is a free-lance writer in Milton, Mass., who writes regularly for the Boston Globe. His articles have also appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post and CommonWealth Magazine.Contacts: Neil Wollman, professor, Manchester College, Fort Wayne, Ind., 219-982-5000. Edith M. Conn, graduate, Manchester College, Middlebury, Ind., 219-825-1375. Troy E. Lucas, graduate, Manchester College, Fort Wayne, Ind., 219-982-8564. Kristi A. Zimmerman, leader of campus pledge movement, Manchester College, Fort Wayne, Ind., 219-982-6837. Michael S. Alevy, special deputy assistant public defender, Office of the Public Defender, New Haven, Conn., 203-789-7458. Jonathan Hutson, 1996 graduate, New York University School of Law, Keene, N.H., 603-352-6110. Francine Hahn, organizer, National Association for Public Interest Law, Washington, D.C., 202-466-3686. Robert L. Sigmon, senior associate, Council for Independent Colleges, 919-787-2934. Nancy Katz, executive director, Students for Responsible Business, San Francisco, Calif., 415-561-6508. Sean Kearns, spokesman, Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif., 707-826-5102.

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