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Story 11: Learning to Lead

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College Work-Study Program (1965)

Written by Mike Spock

Another example of timely opportunism occurred when word got out that as part of Lyndon B. Johnson's New Society legislation, it would be possible to pay college students for part-time work to supplement the cost of their tuition and fees. Although the new federal College Work Study Program (CWS) was originally designed to cover on-campus student jobs, we hoped it might cover most of the costs of museum floor staff or "interpreters" who facilitated the learning of visiting families and school groups as they interacted with our newer generation of hands-on exhibits.

When I began working at the museum, all staff had to take turns covering the floor and the clubs, especially during weekends and school vacations. Our growing attendance had put even more pressure on staff to cover their slots. The opportunity to hire college students at almost no cost seemed heaven-sent and not to be missed!

We made the rounds of area colleges and universities with a simple job description and a commitment to train and supervise the students and cover the payroll contribution for which the college was to be responsible. With the program so new, the colleges had only begun to explore the potential for on-campus jobs, so campus administrators welcomed the jobs the museum offered. Before we knew it, we had several dozen Work Study students working at the museum fifteen hours/week during the school year and thirty-five hours/week during the summer—at almost at no cost to us! (Ninety percent of their salaries was paid by the federal government, 10 percent by the museum.) At its peak there were forty CWS staff members paid the equivalent of a hefty six-figure operating subsidy each year from this government program.

Less than ten years later, funding cuts began and a much cannier team of college faculty and administrators were up to speed on making sure all CWS jobs were absorbed on campus. But during that golden decade, with a lot of careful work with individual program administrators the museum benefited from a huge infusion of time from an eager team of young staff working on the museum floor, behind the scenes, and in community centers. Many of these students, trained at the museum, ended up in the profession; some became directors of their own museums. When the CWS program began to dry up, we had to scramble to find other ways to subsidize this crew because by then we had become terribly dependent on students to make the visitors' experience truly memorable.

Next: The Collections Project (1966-1981)