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A Framework for “Higher Thinking”: My Experience with the Shepherd Poverty Program

By Laura Berry

Ms. Berry currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and works for Hunton & Williams, LLP in their pro bono partnership with the University of Virginia School of Law.   She graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in Poverty and Human Capability. Laura hopes to attend law school in the future and make pro bono and public interest work a focus of her career.

"We must address the environmental differences that set low-income college students apart from their higher-income peers in order to provide adequate support in both the classroom and campus life, improving their college retention," writes Berry (W&L 2014).

“We must address the environmental differences that set low-income college students apart from their higher-income peers in order to provide adequate support in both the classroom and campus life, improving their college retention,” writes Berry (W&L 2014).

There was no greater influence on my education at Washington and Lee than the Shepherd Poverty Program. I do not use that phrase liberally–I was lucky enough to attend a school that offered me seemingly boundless academic opportunities. The Shepherd program went a couple of steps further than that, however. The Shepherd program taught me how to think. The introduction course, Poverty 101, provoked an extraordinary level of critical thought about society, to which I may never have had access otherwise. The coursework thereafter provided me, during the most formative years of my life, with the intellectual framework to think critically about the well-being of others. I think our society needs a multi-faceted understanding of those affected by poverty in order to help eradicate it. Once we allow ourselves to understand poverty beyond our initial biases and misconceptions, it becomes easier to see what will help. I am grateful to have started developing such an understanding during my undergraduate studies , and I sincerely hope, for the benefit of our society as a whole, that others continue to have that opportunity.

I knew that I wanted to pursue my summer internship in one of two areas: education or law. After further research, I chose to do my internship in 2012 with the Harlem Children’s Zone’s TRUCE Media program, a summer enrichment program offered to underprivileged, inner city teenagers in New York City. During my introductive studies, I formed the belief that the best option for halting the “cycle of poverty” and transcending social class lines was improving access to quality education, the ultimate goal being a college diploma. As an English major with a strong interest in creative writing, I believed in TRUCE’s mission: to offer an engaging creative environment that would enhance academic performance during the school year while also keeping teenagers safe from the pervasive influences of “the streets.” On paper, Harlem Children’s Zone, offering several similar programs like TRUCE, seemed to be on the right track, boasting a roughly 90% college acceptance rate for high school seniors using its services. However, after further discussion with some of my coworkers, I learned that a number of these participants did not graduate from college, an upsetting discovery given the strong correlation between college diplomas and higher incomes. The teenagers with whom I worked were smart, interested, artistic, and had an unmatched sense of determination despite the odds they faced. With strong academic records and the desire to work hard to get accepted to college, why were so many of them dropping out?

This inconsistency was the driving force behind my capstone research paper, which focused on college retention rates among low-income students in the United States. It included data surrounding the differences in income levels for college graduates and non-college graduates. Most importantly, I focused on the factors that limit low-income college students, hoping to understand the gap between getting in and staying in. Financial difficulties, of course, are among the more obvious reasons, but not simply because low-income students don’t have the ability to pay the soaring cost of college tuition. The nuances associated with submitting financial aid forms, scholarship applications, selecting meal plans, and simply covering the costs of daily living on campus are daunting for any eighteen year old, much less one who is likely confronting them coming from an environment in which such nuances are unfamiliar. There is also the paradox of “the elite school.” Schools that are categorized as elite boast the highest tuition and an air of superiority that is equally intimidating, deterring bright, fully capable low-income applicants from applying to them. In reality, these schools can offer more scholarship money and better quality resources to low-income students. Therefore, retention among low-income students at these schools is statistically much higher. My capstone reinforced my initial suspicion that improving access to college is not enough to keep low-income students enrolled. We must address the environmental differences that set low-income college students apart from their higher-income peers in order to provide adequate support in both the classroom and campus life, improving their college retention.

Although my post-graduate pursuits have been largely unrelated to education, my internship in Harlem and the discoveries I made in completing my capstone gave me the insight and knowledge by which to approach my work in two law firms. Currently, I work for Hunton & Williams, LLP in their Pro Bono office in Charlottesville, Virginia. This office handles cases on an exclusively pro bono basis through their partnership with the University of Virginia School of Law in the areas of family law and immigration. Unlike state-funded legal aid services that follow strict income guidelines in deciding who qualifies for services, our office is able to use discretion. This allows us to serve individuals who might not meet the federal and state definitions of poverty, but nonetheless cannot afford hefty legal fees.  My work has drawn my attention to a gaping hole in client access to representation, one that has redirected me to what I learned about the difference between relative poverty and absolute poverty during my coursework. My firm offers an invaluable resource to the community, but unfortunately, our model hasn’t quite hit the mainstream. In order to serve a wide range of people from various socioeconomic backgrounds, our society needs a more graduated system that offers both pro bono and “sliding scale” legal services in junction with private firms to supplement the state and federally-funded legal aid services currently in place. I’m thankful for my experience with the Shepherd program in helping me conceptualize poverty and its many faces, as it has helped me approach my job with compassion and understanding for our clients and their hardships.

I hope to attend law school in the near future, and I know I will carry what I’ve learned from the Shepherd program throughout my legal education and career. Better still, the knowledge I’ve gained from the Shepherd program will shape my thoughts and interactions beyond the scope of school and work. The Shepherd program has created a lens through which I view my individual world, a constant reminder to find ways to use my strengths to serve others. I believe it has challenged me and my peers far beyond what our academic environments would have done otherwise by creating a unique opportunity for interdisciplinary learning. I am so thankful for my experience, and I will cherish it for years to come.


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