Alleviating Poverty in the United States

LEXINGTON, Va., Aug. 12, 2016 – Not many college students would willingly, much less eagerly, sign up for an inner-city, poverty-focused internship that pays only $14 per day – but that’s just what five VMI cadets have done this summer through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.

Since 2012 VMI has participated in the Shepherd program, which began at neighboring Washington and Lee University. The program offers eight-week internships to students from 19 participating colleges and universities across the country, with the goal of encouraging students to make a difference by serving both disadvantaged individuals and their communities.

In years past, VMI has had approximately two Shepherd interns each summer, but this year, all of the consortium member schools were asked to supply five interns. “This was a big uptick for us,” noted Maj. Dorothy Hayden, assistant director of career services and facilitator of the Shepherd internships at VMI.

As might be expected, the Shepherd interns’ diverse experiences reflect the many facets of poverty in the United States. Laura Siles-Suaznabar ’17, who’s double-majoring in modern languages and cultures (Spanish) and international studies, is interning at CitySquash, a nonprofit organization in the Bronx area of New York City. CitySquash seeks to lift at-risk youth out of poverty through a program that includes tutoring, mentoring, community service, travel – and learning to play the game of squash.

In an email interview, Siles-Suaznabar wrote that she chose CitySquash so she could use her Spanish, as the area served by CitySquash is a mixture of Spanish-speaking and Italian-speaking communities.

“Life is very loud,” Siles-Suaznabar wrote, “which is typical of New York. … The Bronx is always loud and hectic, very different from the serene life at Lexington, but it has its unique beauty that cannot be found anywhere else.”

After a two-hour commute via the subway and a city bus, Siles-Suaznabar arrives at work by 9 a.m. each weekday. In the mornings, she assists with paperwork and phone calls, and then she helps to serve lunch to elementary and middle-school students.

“This is slightly tricky, because the lunches are healthy lunches, and I have to make sure the students eat their food, even though they may not be used to eating in such a way,” she observed.

After lunch, Siles-Suaznabar teaches fourth- through sixth-graders, using lesson plans and themes she developed herself, and then tutors individual children, including some ninth-graders headed to boarding school this fall. As the summer has advanced, Siles-Suaznabar has found herself getting to know not only the children but also their families, and she’s discovered that some common stereotypes about the economically disadvantaged are simply not true.

“Many of the parents I’ve met and gotten to know are extremely hard-working and are really proud of their kids for being part of such a great after-school program,” she wrote. “The parents and children are some of the most hardworking people I have ever encountered.”

Like the other Shepherd interns, Siles-Suaznabar signed an honor pledge to live on a poverty wage of $14 per day, a figure that does not include housing costs. From living on such a limited budget, she’s learned that fun doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

She wrote, “For example, in the city there are so many free events from Bastille Day to the hundreds of parades … that it is nearly impossible to be bored. … Shepherd has let me experience an amazing program in New York City, which seemed unimaginable, but now I am seriously considering moving here at some point during my life.”

Several states away, in Georgia, Samantha Alexander ’18 has also found herself learning, stretching, and growing in new directions this summer as she works with Tapestri Inc., an Atlanta-based nonprofit that serves foreign-born women who are victims of human trafficking or domestic violence.

Alexander, who is pondering a career as a lawyer, is working this summer as a legal advocate in Tapestri’s domestic violence department. “Working with the victims of domestic violence is an experience I will remember forever,” she wrote. “The majority of the women have experienced abuse most of us could not imagine, and yet they continue to move forward.”

This month, Alexander has been assisting a woman who was kicked out of her home by an abusive husband, who left her without her personal belongings and access to her children. Alexander and others at Tapestri have helped the woman to receive a temporary protective order, through which she also received custody of her children.

Next, Tapestri staff will help the woman, who is not a U.S. citizen, apply for a temporary visa through the Violence Against Women Act. The visa, if approved, will pave the way toward a green card and work permit.

Alexander said that she’s learned that escaping abuse, particularly for women who do not speak English, is a long and difficult process. “Tapestri has taught me how complicated the world really is, and how difficult it can be for individuals to overcome … boundaries,” she wrote.

“There are so many barriers for immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence, and the language barrier is only one of them,” Alexander continued. “Learning about these barriers has certainly opened my eyes to the world, and to see these women overcome the boundaries amazes me and gives me hope.”

Also participating in the Shepherd program internships this summer are Amanda Smith ’17, a biology major who is working at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio; Angelique Barlow ’17, a biology major whose internship is with the Christian Appalachian Project in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky; and Bria Anderson ’18, an international studies and political science major who’s with Code Interactive in the Bronx.

All of the interns have either taken a required class, Poverty and Human Capability, or will do so upon conclusion of their internship.

–Mary Price



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