Realizing that MIT needed a central resource to support and further the humanitarian spirit of its students, the MIT Public Service Center was founded in fall 1988 by a steering committee chaired by First Lady Priscilla Gray and Professor Robert Mann '50 under the direction of Dean of Student Affairs Shirley McBay.
Priscilla saw an opportunity to apply her strong ethic of public service. She has been a longtime volunteer at Children's Hospital and the MIT Women's League, she served the Institute as First Lady from 1980-1990, and she has continued to chair the PSC Steering Committee since our founding. She is a source of inspiration, which she demonstrates every year by presenting the Priscilla King Gray Award to undergraduates who are exceptionally committed to public service. During our 20th anniversary year in 2008, Priscilla shared her reflections and thoughts about the history and importance of the PSC.
How did the Public Service Center get off the ground?
[Shirley McBay] came to me that October and said she would like to have a Public Service Center within the Dean’s office, and she wondered if I’d be willing to be a co-chair of the committee along with a faculty member. In the first year, we operated on a shoestring budget; we worked hard to find people who would be interested in supporting us. The next year, 1989, Vic and Mary Tyler called just before Christmas to donate a substantial gift for the endowment. Wanting to learn how we had progressed in the upcoming year was the only string attached. It really was a thrill to have our first angels on board.
What was the response from students during the first year?
We began to have a group of committed students, and I was surprised at how quickly that happened. During the first week of IAP, we made a list of agencies in the city that would be interested in getting some help. We naively filled about 10 or 12 notebooks with information about volunteer opportunities. We had a pizza party out of our pockets. We couldn’t believe it: the lobby of Building 10 was filled with students. They pored over the notebooks, four or five sharing one notebook, while one of our student staff members signed the students up for their service option. We were absolutely elated at the end of the evening; it was suddenly so much bigger than we ever thought it could be.
Why do service at all? What would you say to MIT students?
Because the world needs people like MIT students. It’s that simple. And there’s a second reason that I really believe plays a big part in all of this. If they can come to MIT and take the course load that they take, and still find time to do the things they do for the PSC, that experience will be hard-wired into their way of life. They are probably going to do that afterwards; it’s a pattern. If this were a slow-paced environment, you’d say they did it to take up time. But that’s not right. And so, I think that they are making a commitment now, but it will be there for a long time.