Students find success through EMU program offering debt forgiveness for community service

Eastern Michigan University (EMU) students are experiencing positive results through a new program that allows undergrads to pay off debts to the university through community service.


A small second cohort of students is currently going through the Eagle Engage Corps, which the university's Engage @EMU office launched with a pilot program this winter. Registration for the fall semester is now open.


Corps participants could be placed as volunteers in programs like the after-school enrichment program Bright Futures or other local programs that EMU helps coordinate, such as Upward Bound or Community Navigators.


The Corps is open to undergrads and former students in good academic standing who have a declared major and/or minor and have completed 78 to 100 credits. Students must enroll in a minimum of nine credit hours a semester for up to three consecutive semesters while they are volunteering with the Corps. Students who complete three semesters of community service can have account balances up to $6,000 forgiven, while students who complete one or two semesters can receive partial debt forgiveness.


The program only covers outstanding accounts a student has with EMU directly, and can't offer debt forgiveness for federal student loans.


Initially, participants were expected to complete 100 hours of public service in an EMU community program over the course of a semester. But Jessica "Decky" Alexander, professor and director of academic engagement programs for Engage @EMU, says the pilot program showed that 100 hours was "an unreasonable expectation" for the students, most of whom are working full-time jobs in addition to taking classes.


The program has been amended to require 30 hours of community service per semester instead.


Another lesson learned from the pilot program, Alexander says, is "an affirmation that most people who stop out don't do so because of academics but because of financial barriers."


Alexander says several other unexpected positives have emerged as the program has gotten started.


For instance, Corps member Jasmine McAlister was alerted to a loan she was eligible for through EMU's credit union. She is completing her community service with The Corner Health Center and Growing Hope while working to complete a bachelor's degree in health administration.


Senior Marcus Gavin dropped out of Eastern after having to take semesters off to pay off college debt. But through the Eagle Engage Corps program, he is back in school and doing his community service with local nonprofit Mentor 2 Youth. If all goes to plan, he will graduate with his degree in 2020.


Perhaps most excitingly, participants Kory Woods and Jamere Dixon were awarded a Road to Completion scholarship. Dixon also picked up a second scholarship from EMU.


Dixon credits the Eagle Engage Corps program with giving her both the resources and confidence to apply for scholarships.


"To get both of those scholarships in a six-month period is a testament to the support of both the faculty and the others in the program," Dixon says. "We encourage each other because we're going through all of the same struggles. It gives us confidence to stand in our truth and not be afraid of failure. You can apply for a scholarship, and if you don't get it, you can still keep going."


Interested students may apply for the program here through June 30. Officials expect to make decisions about who is accepted for the fall semester in early July.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


Photo by Sarah Rigg.

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