Michael Thiel, Volunteer

Michael Thiel has lots of experience helping people. That’s because as a youth in Hamilton, where he attended Kuser Elementary, and in Bordentown, where he went to high school, he often accompanied his parents on community projects.

“I was raised with a sort of discipline of always wanting to give back,” he says. “That’s what led me here.”

The son of a tombstone cutter/engraver and a stay-at-home mom who began working as an office staffer when her children went to school, Thiel says his parents always encouraged him and his siblings to do things for others.

“During the summer, we would volunteer to work as counselors at community camps, that type of thing, and occasionally during the winter months I would go down to the soup kitchens. That was probably the most eye-opening experience I can remember, as far as seeing a difference,” he says.

He recalls his first trip to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. “We got there early, and began setting up in the pantry, getting ready to serve,” he says. “My preconceived notion was that there were going to be a few people coming in. It was strange. We were behind this metal-like rolling door, they opened this screen — my job was to dish out mashed potatoes — and you saw just hundreds of people waiting. It was beyond anything I could imagine at the time.”

Thiel was in high school at the time. He was taken aback by the level of need he perceived in the community that day. “You grow up sheltered, and you just don’t realize how different things can be.”

As an English major at Rutgers University, from which he graduated in 2000, he developed a love for language. But in high school, and at the beginning of his time at Rutgers, Thiel was interested in working in the corporate world, so he had concentrated mostly on math and science.

“That’s the funny thing when you tell people you go to a university for English, they assume you want to become a teacher,” he says. “But that was not my notion at all. When I started at Rutgers I was actually interested in working in business or being a good little corporate citizen, and I was taking an English survey class and it just had a huge impact on me.”

He began studying literature. “I think it was a bit of a shock to my family,” he says.

After taking a year off to travel, Thiel began working at Educational Testing Service as a temp. “I just needed to find a job where I could pay the bills,” he says. “It was just completely by chance. They liked me, and it worked out into a full-time position.”

Thiel is now a fraud investigator for ETS. “The best way to sum it up is that I investigate test fraud. Our office makes sure that tests are administered under standardized conditions, and my job is to investigate when they aren’t.”

He is fascinated by the machinations test-takers go through to gain an edge. “You would be surprised at the things people do,” he says. The stereotype is that it is people who live or attend school in poorer areas that cheat on tests such as the SAT, but that is very wrong. “You find the most cheaters in affluent areas,” he says.

It was after September 11, 2001, that Thiel began working with Literacy Volunteers. “I figured I should devote some time to volunteering on a regular basis,” he says. “I had some gratitude for just how privileged I felt.”

The people he has worked with have continued to make an impression on him. “We used to have a group of Nigerian women who came here, and they were just so full of life and happiness,” he says. “I mean, so many different people who come here have such a drive, such a desire to do well and succeed. The longer you work here, the more you develop little bonds with people, and you see their motivation. You just want so badly for them to succeed because they want it so much.”

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