MIT Women leading service around the World

Originally posted on MIT News: March 8, 2011

Story by Emily Lo G

What do youth development in the Yukon River region of Alaska, collaborative design of common spaces for domestic violence survivors in Boston and computer training to fight human trafficking in Cambodia’s capitol of Phnom Penh have in common? These student projects, along with many more, have all been generously funded by one of the Institute’s treasures: the MIT Women’s League.

Since 1913, the League has pursued its goal to “humanize a technical institute” by encouraging students to engage in serving their communities near and far. Although the organization already had a rich history of local outreach — such as spearheading volunteer opportunities like conversational English classes — their collaboration with the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center (PKG Center) since 1999 has enabled them to support MIT women engaging with women’s issues around the world.

“MIT students are full of purpose and the local and global programs selected by the PKG Center are impressive,” says Ellen Stordy, a member of the Women's League executive board. The League has supported eight women students addressing women’s issues through the Rebecca M. Vest Fellowship, established in 2005. More recently, they have also launched the Elizabeth W. Johnson Fellowship for students, both women and men, working on environmental issues. Both Public Service Fellowship programs are named in honor of former first ladies of MIT.

Some students viewed their service experiences as a confirmation of academic direction. Graduate student Alyssa Bryson traveled to Colombia last summer to support a consortium of women providing advocacy for those affected by the country’s armed conflict. “Hearing their personal stories … was incredible. They face their challenges with such strength and perseverance that I was truly left in awe,” she shared in response to working alongside the Colombian women. “The experience solidified my lifelong goal to create sustainable change for marginalized communities, and for this I am extremely grateful.”

The Rebecca M. Vest Fellowship has also been pivotal in shaping the paths of women early on in their time at MIT. During her freshman year, alumna Kendra Johnson ’09 was funded by the PKG Center to develop and implement a potable water system in Ecuador’s Amazonian communities. The Women’s League supported Kendra for a return trip to Ecuador, during which she helped villagers become more self-sufficient in meeting their water needs. Johnson, currently studying medicine in California, now runs Sacha Yaku, a non-profit that supports the community of Santa Ana to help not just themselves but also neighboring villages with their community water systems.

These stories and more are only a snapshot of the broad impact the Women’s League has had on the MIT community and its global activities. The staff and board provide a wide range of ways to get involved, as portrayed by board member Suzanne Collins: “If you’re looking for fun or more serious opportunities, brief encounters or monthly meetings, you can find it all with the MIT Women’s League.”

Read more about students and their public service projects...