“The microcosm that it represents is incredible, it makes your brain want to explode,” said Jillian Butler, director of the Wavemaker Fellowship at the Rhode Island Commerce Corp.
Butler has led the Wavemaker program since its inception five years ago, and she’s become familiar with the financial impact of student loans in Rhode Island. Wavemaker – an initiative that provides a refundable tax credit to Rhode Island employees working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or design fields – provides for 893 fellows, Butler said, with 223 of those being added in 2019.
Those eligible must work full time in Rhode Island and come from a relevant field such as engineering, life and natural sciences, advanced mathematics, industrial design and more. The full list of eligibility requirements can be found at the Commerce RI website. Fellows with an associate degree can receive up to $1,000 per year, while those with a bachelor’s or master’s degree can get up to $4,000 and $6,000 per year, respectively.
While the program has helped put a dent in student loans figures for hundreds of Rhode Islanders, Butler said there’s no way to help everyone. Butler said those 223 new fellows pay $1.3 million to loan providers, mostly in interest, on a yearly basis. Wavemaker’s budget is only $2 million.
“If we were to give everybody everything they needed for one year, it would be $1.3 million, and that’s only 200 people in the grand scheme of things, in Rhode Island, which is the smallest state in the country,” Butler said during an interview at Beacon offices last Thursday. “If you think about that $1.2 million, if people did not owe that, where would they be? Going out, buying a house, investing, creating the upward movement that a young professional is yearning for, but is unfortunately stifled by debt and unable to access.”
Butler said about 60 percent of fellows have graduated from a Rhode Island college or university, while just a bit less than that – 55 percent – went to high school in the Ocean State.
“It’s a really great balance of people that are from Rhode Island, in addition to people who fell in love with Rhode Island when they came here for school, or when they moved here for their first job,” Butler said. “If they want to stay here, we want to help them stay here by offering this little bit of an incentive for them and their companies to be able to say, ‘We’re different from the other offers that you have because of this.’”
Butler said that each fellow can receive up to four years of funding consecutively, but added that each cohort has been awarded for at least two years so far. A third-party committee dispenses funds in a “completely employer-blind and applicant-blind process,” and generally prefers to dole out money to more people for less time than vice versa.
“Thus far we’re getting positive results from the surveys that we’ve run for all the fellows that we have at the moment that it is helpful,” Butler said. “Obviously everybody would like more, but at least two years is a guaranteed funding source to help them budget accordingly and figure out where they really want to put that money to give them a leg up in the economy.”
The nearly 900 fellows of the program represent more than 300 companies and 175 alma maters. Warwick is responsible for 53 fellows from 27 companies, earning about $390,000. Thirty-four fellows from 19 companies in Cranston account for about $238,000, while 22 fellows across 10 businesses in Johnston reel in about $166,000.
Overall, 89 Warwick residents have benefited from Wavemaker, which has allotted more than $659,000 to those recipients. Fifty-one residents of Cranston have received more than $365,000, while 17 Johnstonians have accounted for more than $138,000.
DiSanto Priest senior accountant Alexandria Pacheco, who heard about Wavemaker from a coworker, entered the program with $90,000 in debt after five years of undergraduate and graduate school at Bryant University. She said, via email, that she was approved for the maximum amount of $6,000, and after paying her loans for the past four years she has whittled her balance down to $50,000. She said the fellowship was a “big help” in her efforts.
“I received the $6,000 twice, and putting $12,000 straight to principal was a huge help,” Pacheco said. “I don’t think that my balance would be as low as it is right now if it were not for the fellowship. I’m not able to save that kind of money on my own, mostly because my student loan bill each month is basically a mortgage and I also have basic living expenses to pay for. There’s no way I would have been able to pay down my loans as much without the fellowship.”
April Arruda, a manager at DiSanto Priest, also first heard of Wavemaker at her firm. She said that, with the help of the program, she was able to purchase a home.
“I wasn’t thinking of purchasing a home when I applied. I was actually planning to use it to pay down my loans,” Arruda said. “But I was tired of renting and had started looking at houses. So I used my first wavemaker credit towards the down payment. My second payment was used to pay-off the larger [original balance] of my two remaining loans. I’ve been trying to aggressively pay it down and finally finished it off just a few weeks ago when the wavemaker check came in. I’m planning to have the other one paid off by this summer! Fingers crossed!”
Butler said the defense industry is the best represented, for which she said large organizations like Raytheon and the U.S. Navy are likely responsible. She said there’s a wealth of engineers and industrial designers working in the state, plugging away on lines and in manufacturing facilities.
Butler did note, though, that she would like to see more applicants from the biomedical innovation field. She also said she’s proposing an extension to the program this year that would expand its reach to include STEM teachers in secondary education.
She said of the $2 million budget proposal this year, $400,000 has been earmarked for teachers.
“In the high school space – because unfortunately Rhode Island is unfairly impacted by teachers leaving their posts and education is the topic of conversation no matter where you are in the state right now – specifically in the math and science spaces, teachers are not joining, teachers are not staying, teachers are not performing,” Butler said.
The program does have its protections in place, though. If a fellow’s position changes to one outside of STEM or design – or if they move out of Rhode Island to a new job – they’re no longer eligible.
Deputy Director of Communications Brian Hodge said applicants will only receive their award after having worked and paid taxes in the state for a year as well.
“So this isn’t just a check that goes out the door without any safeguards or ties to it. It’s strictly regulated,” he said. “It’s making an impact in people’s lives. These are people who work in the state, most of them living in the state, most of them graduating from local institutions. These are real Rhode Islanders that we’re helping out, helping them have extra funds for all sorts of things.”
Both Butler and Hodges also emphasized the importance of fellows networking with one another. Butler said the program has hosted more than 30 events over the past three years aimed at educating young professionals, focusing on topics such as salary negotiations and budgeting.
Their next event will take place Tuesday, Feb. 25, at 6 p.m. at Iron Works in Warwick.
“The things I like to call – and Millennial RI also calls – ‘adulting,’” Butler said. “Then also, we do want other people to meet other fellows who are involved in the program to make connections, that way to further their personal life or their career. As an adult, it’s hard to meet new people. If it’s not your family, your friends or your coworkers, you’re kind of in a silo when it comes to new friends.”
“It also builds that camaraderie between the fellows, and anything we can help people to stay in Rhode Island, work in Rhode Island, extend their network here, is a big-time positive,” Hodges said.