Corey Jacobson: A problem we shouldn’t have

There’s a scene in “Bad Boys II” when a drug lord discovers that the rat infestation in his attic is literally eating away the piles of cash he has stashed there. Waving his gun around and trying to shoot at the rats, he remarks, “This is a stupid fucking problem to have. But it is a problem nonetheless.”

I found myself echoing that same sentiment recently. After allocating a record $500,000 to student organizations this fall, the Student Association announced two weeks ago that it was allocating an additional $40,000 for the College Democrats and Republicans to hold a joint event with big-name, high-priced speakers. At the same time, the University was urging students to vote by text message for GW’s Alternative Breaks program in order to win a $50,000 prize from the Pepsi Refresh Project. The campaign remains ongoing, but at the time of publishing, Alternative Breaks was ranked 80th – a full 70 spots away from winning the funds.

On the surface, the two separate funding situations are difficult to reconcile. Clearly, the SA has enough money to fund worthy organizations, yet the Alternative Breaks program – a central part of GW’s growing community service focus – is forced to enter a Pepsi sweepstakes to garner funds.

But as I spoke to individuals involved in the SA, the Office of Community Service and the Alternative Breaks program, I stumbled upon a funding situation so bizarre and bureaucracy-strangled that when I explained my column to Matt Francolino, the co-chair of the program’s executive board, he told me, “It’s about time this was exposed.”

The Alternative Breaks program operates within the OCS, and as a result, is ineligible to register as an official student organization to receive funds from the SA. This would not be particularly important, except that financial problems have begun to hinder the program’s success. While Alternative Breaks has become increasingly popular in recent years – according to OCS, it will send nearly 400 students on trips this academic year and has another 300 waitlisted – team leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to meet their fundraising goals and often return with outstanding debt.

Student and Academic Support Services – an umbrella organization for 20 GW departments, including OCS – will occasionally relieve the debt, as several sources in the SA, OCS and Alternative Breaks leadership confirmed. The rest of the time, as was the case for the Alternative Winter Break to Peru in 2009, participants are forced to continue fundraising upon their return.

But here’s the catch: If it were permitted, the SA would be both willing and able to provide significant funding for the Alternative Breaks program, according to a source within the SA who asked to remain anonymous. Yet despite having a 15-student executive board and individual student team leaders for each trip – therefore, essentially functioning as a bigger and more complex student organization – Alternative Breaks is ultimately frozen outside the reach of SA funds.

“Funding has been such a big issue,” Francolino said. “The University benefits immensely from our program in the attention we bring GW, and it’s frustrating that it doesn’t invest in a program that it yields so much from.”

And although students are required to pay for about one-third of their trip’s cost and are tasked with fundraising the remaining two-thirds, GW provides partnerships with many of its departments to help with fundraising efforts. The services – ranging from the Division of External Relations producing promotional videos, to the Office of Alumni Relations helping request alumni funds – have substantial financial value and provide Alternative Breaks with opportunities it might not otherwise obtain on its own.

But for a University that prides itself on a public service emphasis, these are only small steps toward easing the program’s financial burden and expanding the program.

Having participated in an international alternative spring break, albeit not through GW, I can vouch for the positive and lasting impact these trips can have on an individual. Without a doubt, one of the essential components of the trip is the struggle to fundraise for it, which ultimately helps create a sense of ownership over the experience. But that does not mean it shouldn’t be just a little easier for students.

GW does not have limitless resources to fund programs, nor should it be required to – even in the name of community service. But the SA has a stash of cash in the attic, and its hands are tied, preventing it from doling some out to the Alternative Breaks program. We may not have a rat infestation, but we certainly have a stupid problem.

The writer, a senior majoring in business, is a Hatchet columnist.

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