Help for Those Helping Others

Tufts’ Loan Repayment Assistance Program has aided thousands of alumni working in the nonprofit and public sectors
Gregory Fredette at the front desk of a dental clinic
“I knew that for every major life decision I would make, my school loan would be a major player,” said Gregory Fredette, D12. Photo: Anna Miller
November 14, 2018

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Lindsay Rogers, A15, an ardent environmentalist, had long envisioned that she would go into nonprofit work after graduation. “But as my student loan debt started racking up, I became more and more anxious about how I could fulfill my career goals while paying back my student loans,” she recalled. 

Then during her senior year she heard about Tufts’ Loan Repayment Assistance Program, or LRAP, and realized she didn’t have to sacrifice her dream.

“It was hard to believe that this program existed. It gave me the additional confidence and security to pursue the career path that I wanted,” said Rogers, now a program associate with WaterNow Alliance & Trust for Conservation Innovation in San Francisco.

Rogers is not alone in her enthusiasm for a program that’s positively influencing the lives of alumni. It’s been a decade since Tufts launched LRAP specifically to support alumni who pursue careers in the nonprofit or public-service sectors. Thousands of alumni have received funds that lighten their debt load, thanks to the Omidyar-Tufts Microfinance Fund, established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, A88, H11, and his wife, Pamela, J89, H11.

“We’re going strong,” said LRAP administrator Matthew Reardon, A03, who knows well how students like Rogers are looking for support as they join the workforce—brimming with ideals, but also confronting tough financial realities, like meeting rent and monthly loan payments.

“They want to make the world a better place by working in the public sector,” he said. “But if you’re taking that job at a nonprofit instead of one in the private sector, you’re likely to make less money.”

LRAP eases that stress with awards that go directly to reducing debt. A total of $500,000 is awarded each year, and depending on a person’s demonstrated need, awards range from $500 to $5,000, with an average award of approximately $1,200. To date, more than 3,500 awards have been dispersed—371 last year—benefitting thousands of alumni (recipients are eligible for repeat awards.)

The program’s main benefit, of course, is practical. It helps graduates pay down loans faster, and, by extension, makes personal finances more manageable. But benefits are also intangible; the awards speak to the Tufts’ hallmark of civic engagement, both locally and globally, said Reardon.

Even modest awards, he said, reinforce the values that first inspired alumni, as highly focused students, to want “to become active, innovative, and compassionate problem-solvers, be it improving human health and animal welfare, or advocating for a healthy planet and for those battling poverty,” he said.

“I get so many thank you letters every year,” he said, “and they often share the same refrain: ‘I wouldn’t be able to stay in this job without LRAP help,’” he said. 

With the next deadline for applications coming up on December 1—for more information, go here), Tufts Now reached out to alumni from various schools to find out what the program has meant to them.

Taking Charge of Health

Shoghig Balkian, MPH09, is literally putting health care into the hands of patients. As senior manager of the digital user experience team at Dignity Health, she helps design self-service tools and features that allow patients—the poor and disenfranchised, as well as the commercially insured across California, Arizona, and Nevada—to seek, find, and request care through smartphones, tablets, and computers.

“What brings me the greatest satisfaction is that I’m designing something that ultimately helps people serve their own health-care needs,” she said.

LRAP, said Balkian, contributes to her desire to help the underserved take charge of their health. “When I first heard about the program, I thought it was wonderful,” she said. “As a first-generation college graduate in the U.S., I didn’t know much about grants or scholarships I could have received for my grad degree from Tufts.”

And the spirit of the program “allows me to continue doing work for a cause and purpose that helps me do my life’s work,” she said. “I’m thankful each year for every little bit the program can give.”

Ahead of the Curve

An exhibiting artist, Ashley Billingsley, MFA09, maintains a studio in East Boston. But she also values her nonprofit work. She is operations manager for Boston-based Community Action Program Legal Services, and she works part-time with Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), which provides low-income residents with services to help them extricate themselves from poverty.

Both positions, she said, allow her to earn money “in ways that make a meaningful contribution. There is so much I can get behind in terms of the work that Community Action and ABCD invest in. At a fundamental human level, it is hard to think of anything more worthwhile than using the time I have to improve the world around me, and help grow positive patterns. That is really rewarding.”

She received her first LRAP award last year, and again this year, when, to her delight, it shaved off almost two years from one of her loan payments. “You can’t overestimate the value of a financial boost that one does not expect,” she said. 

She also values the program “as an indication of the long-term commitment that Tufts is prepared to make in its students. We’re all out in the world doing what we’re doing and we have finite time and resources. Tufts is ahead of the curve in understanding the need this program serves.”

Improving the Lives of Patients

When Gregory Fredette, D12, graduated from Tufts, student debt weighed on his mind. “I knew that for every major life decision I would make, my school loan would be a major player,” he said. And although the Tufts LRAP did not affect his 2013 choice to join Goodwin Community Health Dental Center in Somersworth, New Hampshire, it did bring some welcome relief—he wasn’t shouldering his loans alone.

After starting his career in a Quincy, Massachusetts, private practice, Fredette jumped at the chance return to his home state of New Hampshire. “It was a great opportunity to not only build my skills and become a better dentist,” he said, “but also to help a community where a fair number of patients have no place else to go to get dental care.” And since he grew up about twenty minutes away from Goodwin’s office, it offered a chance to give back to the community where he was raised.

It is gratifying, said Fredette, to help people who can’t afford dental services without state aid or the sliding-fee scale offered by Goodwin—especially children. “There are a lot of ways to be a dentist, and for me that means improving the lives of my patients,” he said. “That work creates a certain level of happiness and helps create, for me, a great work-life balance.”

Supporting the Values of Public Service

The intersection of urban environments and wild animals can have tragic and unpredictable consequences, but for Kristy Jacobus, V14, there is no challenge more rewarding than healing injured and sick animals that find themselves in harm’s way.

“Humans are a major cause for the injuries that I see, such as being hit by cars, window strikes, and lead poisoning,” said Jacobus, clinic director at City Wildlife in Washington, D.C. “We have interfered drastically with the natural environment. So I think it is our responsibility to give these animals another chance at survival. What gives me the greatest satisfaction is when I am able to treat and release animals that without my help certainly would have died.”

LRAP, she said, plays a big part in feeling professionally and personally fulfilled. “Many of us strive to have careers that allow us to give back, but unfortunately for many, it just isn’t financially possible,” she said. “This program helps people like me to give back to the community, while helping us feel less overwhelmed by debt.”

No less important is the show of support for her professional choice. “Working with wildlife has been my dream for quite a long time, and I love what I do,” she said. “The program certainly helps me keep going by supporting the values of public service.”

The Spirit of the Tufts Community

Jessica Meckler, F16, heard about the Loan Repayment Assistance Program before she even enrolled at Tufts. “In fact, it was a factor when I weighed different programs,” she recalled. “I really appreciate that Tufts and donors recognize that the cost of higher education has gone up dramatically and yet salaries—particularly in the public and NGO sectors—have not.”

Today Meckler is based in New Delhi, where she supports researchers at the Jameel Abdul Latif Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL); their findings influence policymakers, donors, and advocates of evidence-informed policy. “I support J-PAL South Asia’s work to build the capacity of researchers who produce evidence, policymakers and donors who use it, and advocates of evidence-informed policy. We hold a variety of workshops throughout the South Asia region, as well as provide technical advisory services,” she said.

“The spirit of LRAP is the spirit of the Tufts community,” she said. “It’s about enabling people to do social sector work while not being constricted by the financial obligations they made to get the education and skills necessary to do that work. It’s part of the same philosophy I bring to my daily work. We want to help those around us, and hopefully improve the world around us by even the tiniest amount.”

The Value of the Work

“I've always been motivated to pursue a career that I found meaningful and fulfilling, regardless of salary,” said Lindsay Rogers, A15, who provides research, communications, and operational support for WaterNow Alliance & Trust for Conservation Innovation, a rapidly growing nonprofit in San Francisco focused on sustainable water management. “Even though working in nonprofit requires some financial sacrifice, the work that I do is well worth it to me. It’s nice to know that my alma mater shares these same values.”

Indeed, LRAP is a perfect example of how philanthropy and values line up. “When I tell friends that Tufts is helping me each year with my student loan payments, they find it hard to believe,” she said. “Through this program, Tufts is telling students that our work in the public sector is valuable.”

As Colorado Basin program manager, she works on projects and policy initiatives that help municipalities sustainably manage their drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater systems. “For example, right now I’m working with several fast-growing cities in Colorado to implement water efficient land use planning solutions, such as landscape ordinances and conservation-oriented tap fees,” she said. “I'm also working with the city of Aspen to provide training to local landscape professionals on water efficient landscaping strategies.”

The work, she said, aligns with belief in the urgency of adopting sustainable, affordable, and climate-resilient solutions. “Water is a hugely undervalued resource,” she said. “We think nothing of turning on the tap and having access to safe, reliable, cheap water. But around the country our drinking water, wastewater, and storm water utilities are straining under the impact of aging infrastructure, climate change, insufficient funding, and population growth. I enjoy supporting local water leaders in implementing sustainable water solutions—whether that’s a cash-for-grass rebate program, a rain-barrel ordinance, or a watershed protection program. Ultimately, implementing these solutions will make our communities more water secure and will leave more water for the environment.”

A Positive and Immediate Impact

Mackenzie Sehlke, N13, worked for the Boston public schools and helped launch the Boston Public Market, but is now out west, in Boulder, Colorado. As public affairs specialist with Boulder County Department of Housing and Human Services, Sehlke facilitates community engagement, public involvement, and strategic policy work around key programs, including SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Colorado Health Plus (Colorado’s Medicaid program), affordable housing, child and family safety, education and skill building.

“I love working directly with individuals and families, getting to know them and hearing their stories,” she said. “The most satisfying thing about my job is gathering a group of really different stakeholders together and finding a sense of community.” 

It’s work that’s also having a positive and immediate impact, she said. “Boulder County Housing and Human Services supports more than 90,000 people in a given twelve months—that’s almost one third of the county’s population,” she said.

After learning about the LRAP (“I thought: awesome, thank you!”), she said her award arrived “at a really helpful time. As a member of an all-female nonprofit team, I was working like mad to develop and operate a year-round, local food hub startup that supports small farmers and food producers,” she recalled. “This wasn’t a ‘get-rich-someday’ startup venture, but rather an ‘only-a-nonprofit-is crazy-enough-to-try’ situation. The LRAP grant didn’t make a huge dent in my overall student loan debt, but it sure did buy some peace of mind.”

“The spirit of public service, reciprocity, and community support that is baked into the LRAP grant matters,” she went on. “It matters when institutions put money behind their mission. It matters when it’s a little easier to choose public service as a sustainable career.  And it matters when we all keep public service and community at the heart of our work.”

A Commitment to Public Service

Ever since his Peace Corps experience in Burkina Faso, Michael Wagner, F17, has stayed focused on building a career in the public sector. When he arrived at The Fletcher School, he was already on his way, having worked for four years in South Sudan managing a rural hospital for the John Dau Foundation—one of the Lost Boys organizations—and on health systems strengthening programs for IMA World Health.

The LRAP program, he said, was a key factor in his decision to come to Tufts. “I knew that Fletcher was the perfect place to further develop the skills needed to advance my career,” he said, “but I also had concerns about the cost of attending such a program given that I wanted to return to the NGO world/public sector after completing my M.A.L.D.”

After graduation, he did indeed return, working in south-central Somalia and in Somaliland for Mercy Corps. Today his commitment to public service continues as a program officer with USAID/Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in Sudan. “It is a privilege to have the opportunity to work for a government agency that is tasked with saving lives, alleviating human suffering, and reducing the social and economic impact of disasters and humanitarian crises,” he said.

LRAP, he said, is an encouraging show of support from the Tufts community that helps him “chip away at student loans,” he said, adding that it not only helps to pay off loans quicker, “but enables me to set aside some funds for longer-term financial planning that would otherwise be more challenging.”

Perhaps most importantly, the program helps reinforce his deep commitment “to engage globally within the public sector—whether in the NGO world or with a U.S. government agency such as USAID, with like-minded colleagues who work every day to bring lifesaving assistance to conflict/disaster-affected populations and populations on the move.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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