New UA program to fund conference expenses for undergraduates

Grants capped at $1,000 per student per academic year

The Undergraduate Association passed a proposal to provide grants for undergraduates attending academic or professional conferences last Tuesday.

These grants may cover expenses related to travel, housing, and conference fees (but not food) and will be capped at $1,000 per student per academic year. The UA has allocated $30,000 towards this program as part of its annual budget, treasurer Jonathan Coden ’19 said in an interview with The Tech Tuesday.

To implement this new program, the UA also amended its Financial Board (Finboard) bylaws; Coden and Finboard liaisons will meet Saturday to finalize details. The grant application is expected to open to students during the beginning or middle of IAP, with a mid-February deadline for the first round of submissions, Coden said.

The Finboard will use three main criteria when reviewing applications: quality of conference, academic or professional growth, and funding necessity.

“Preference will be given to supporting students applying to attend renowned and well established conferences with clear guidelines and objectives,” the policies read. To acquire lists of such conferences in different fields, Coden and the UA are currently in the process of reaching out to executive members and administrative assistants of the academic departments.

The reasoning behind this criteria was that students who attend “new and up-and-coming” conferences might not get as much out of the experience as those who attend conferences with established objectives and sources of funding, Coden said.

However, conferences that are less well-known or otherwise not on these lists but still of a high caliber can be validated through other means. They may be assessed based on “keynote speakers, number of years the conference has been running, agenda, past press surrounding the event, and an evaluation of the quality of the conference from a knowledgeable academic or industry professional,” the grant program policies read.

To measure academic or professional growth, the second criteria, the Finboard will look at the students’ responses in their application outlining what positive impact they expect attending the conference to have on their life, Coden said.

Coden also noted that the grants will not be exclusive to conferences within the student’s major, hence the use of “professional” as well as “academic” growth in the wording. For example, Coden explained, a student in Course 5 who wants to go to biomedical graduate school and thus attend a biology conference should not feel constrained against doing so.

For the third criteria, funding necessity, the policies stipulate that the program will “focus on funding students who would struggle the most to pay to attend the conference out of pocket.”

This will be determined based on a “field” in the application, Coden said, which would ask students’ desired funding and minimum funding, such as “if it costs $1500 to go to a conference total...and the student says, I want $1500, but if I only get $500, I’m still going to go."

Asked how the Finboard will know whether the student’s stated financial need correlates with their actual financial need, Coden said, “It’s more so, right now, based on an honor system because even applying and going through this entire process is a barrier to entry to a certain extent.”

Once they receive funding, students can coordinate with the Student Activities Office to make travel and housing arrangements and pay for conference fees before their departure (without having to front their own money).

“Students have been asking for this kind of funding for a while now, and I’m really excited that the UA has been able to implement it this year,” Sarah Melvin ’18, president of the UA, wrote in an email to The Tech. “Launching this program has been a priority for [Coden] and the whole officer team.”

Previously, students seeking financial assistance to attend conferences “could go to the DSL and talk to them” or “apply directly to the conferences for scholarships,” but there was no formal infrastructure within MIT in place, Coden said.

Near the end of the 2016-17 academic year, during meetings to discuss the Student Life Fee, the UA and the Graduate Student Council began a “larger dialogue” that included a comparison of their budgets, Coden said. The UA realized that the GSC had a travel grant program in place and wanted to provide a similar opportunity for undergraduates.   

The resulting UA proposal was closely modeled off the GSC’s; the $1,000 cap, for example, is also part of the GSC guidelines and should be in the “ballpark” of what a typical conference costs, according to Coden.  

As for the anticipated outcome of this year’s pilot program, it remains up in the air.

“It is really possible that not enough students apply, and we don’t allocate all the money, so that would show we either need to change how this program is done, how it’s marketed, or give it less money,” Coden said. “Fundamentally, we have no idea how this is going to work out.”

Constructive feedback is welcome, Coden added.