Student Achievement

Aspirations Take Flight for Psychology Major After Youth Center Internship

Sarah Colomello, Senior Director of Internal Communications
A portrait of Merene Budu-Smith Otoo '24. Photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College.

Dec. 4, 2023 — Despite a fear of flying, Merene Budu-Smith Otoo '24 traveled nearly 5,000 miles from Ghana, Africa — more than 10 hours above the clouds. Her destination? Marist College.

“Back home, you do one thing your entire life and you never get to broaden your horizon with different things,” said the psychology major and biology minor. “When I came here, I started to find myself.”

Being so far from home, Merene hoped to take advantage of every opportunity at Marist and found resources to help her. One included the Presidential Fund for Equity in the Marist Experience, which has provided about $230,000 in total to Marist students since last spring.

Where scholarships and financial aid focus on helping with tuition costs, the Presidential Fund fills gaps for undergraduates whose financial constraints are a barrier to their full participation in the Marist experience, with a current focus on internships and courses that conclude with a travel experience.

“These can be signature experiential learning moments for students, where they explore their passions and get a chance to test them out in the real world,” said Assistant Provost for Student Success Dr. Carol Rinke, who coordinates the distribution of funds.

Internship leads to self-discovery

Image of Merene Budu-Smith Otoo ’24, bottom row and second from right, poses with her Finish Strong Wellness Center colleagues during her internship.
Merene Budu-Smith Otoo ’24, bottom row and second from right, poses with her Finish Strong Wellness Center colleagues during her internship. Photo courtesy of Otoo.

For Merene, that rings true. Her spring internship at a City of Poughkeepsie youth center taught her many things about herself and where she could have the greatest impact.

“It’s been such a beautiful journey and at the end of day, I know exactly what I want to do. I want to help people,” said the Resident Assistant who also works in the College’s Title IX Office. “I feel like college is all about that. Finding out who you are.”

Through the Presidential Fund’s assistance, Merene was able to gain valuable experience at Finish Strong Wellness Center. That stipend helped with living expenses and taxis to her internship where she invested 25 hours a week, unpaid. She paid it forward, buying supplies for the youth center, including crafts and sweets, as part of activities she organized.

“I want to say thank you to the donors because there are so many people who need that funding and this world needs a little more kindness and more generosity,” said Merene, who also goes by Mimi.

Funding student opportunities

The Presidential Fund is fully supported by donors and was started by College President Kevin Weinman, and his wife, Beth. Their initial donation was followed by donations from every member of the Marist Board of Trustees. The goal now is to grow the fund’s ability to help students through additional donors, given the significant demand and popularity of the life-changing experiences the Fund supports.

To date, 44 students received $86,101 to help cover expenses during their unpaid or underpaid internships and 47 students used $145,200 for short-term, faculty-led travel experiences called attachment courses, according to Rinke.

A new pile of applications will soon be under review to determine eligibility for spring semester. Demand for assistance is up, said Career Services and Study Abroad coordinators, who try not to turn any students away who have significant financial need, as determined by federal student aid criteria. For the spring semester, aid applications for courses with travel expenses were due Nov. 1. Internship aid application period opened Monday and runs through Jan. 19.

Image of Merene Budu-Smith Otoo ’24 studying in the James A. Cannavino Library.

Merene Budu-Smith Otoo '24 studying in the James A. Cannavino Library. Photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College.

Ripple effect of funds

Dennis Woodbine is grateful Marist has the Presidential Fund. As the founder and CEO of Finish Strong, he offers after-school programs at no cost to Poughkeepsie city youth who come from difficult family dynamics and experience situations that can be hard on children.

His nonprofit depends on student-interns to lead activities such as boxing, ju-jitsu, gaming, and crafting. At the heart of this work is trauma-informed care, training he provides the interns that is helpful for careers in behavioral sciences, like psychology, social work, and childhood education.

“One of the things I appreciated most about Mimi was she would help all the kids with their homework. That’s what she enjoyed doing,” Woodbine, a social worker, said. “She’s a no-nonsense person, which is good too.”

Caring for others

Merene said her work with children inspired her to apply to graduate school at Marist. She will study health care administration combined with information systems. She wants to use this unique combination of expertise to look after the well-being of doctors and nurses, so that they can give better care to patients — a current gap in the health care field, she said.

“I realized how much you do can affect another person, consciously or unconsciously,” she said. “In the next 10 years, someone is going to appreciate me in a difficult part of their life, and say, ‘If it wasn’t for Mimi, I don’t know how I would have learned to manage my anger, not say a bad word, or pass my math exam.’”

Merene will always be able to look back with the same appreciation for the donors of the Presidential Fund, who helped her soar during her time at Marist.


Presidential Equity Fund Impact Report

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