By Annie Zhang
Ms. Zhang is a first year law student at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. In 2013, she graduated with a degree in Economics and minors in Poverty and Human Capabilities and Philosophy from Washington and Lee University. Following graduation from W&L, Ms. Zhang was a post-graduate fellow at Linden Resources, an organization dedicated to expanding employment opportunities for people with disabilities and wounded veterans.
Poverty studies, “helped to develop my focused awareness of the plight of others through an intimate understanding of the nature of shame, the power of resilience, and the reward of success,” writes Zhang, (W&L 2013), a law student at Washington University in St. Louis.
The Shepherd Poverty Program continues to be instrumental to my personal and professional growth. My experiences through this program instill within me the confidence to achieve my dream of cultivating an impactful legal career. The program helped to develop my focused awareness of the plight of others through an intimate understanding of the nature of shame, the power of resilience, and the reward of success.
The interdisciplinary approach to the study of poverty is especially compelling and effective because it reflects the expansive effects of poverty and empowers students to identify ways to contribute to the solution through their chosen areas of study, career, and community involvement. The integration of thought and action through curriculum and service has a direct impact on the development of students, such that their future decisions reflect a conscience awareness of the prevalence of poverty.
I began my studies in Poverty 101 and within the first minutes of class, it became clear that my peers and I were going to be challenged by an internal examination of our preconceived notions cultivated through the last two decades of our lives and an external expression of these ideologies. Within a matter of weeks, we witnessed the changing and refining of our views towards the intricacies of poverty and the population it unrelentingly affects. If increased classroom knowledge could have such a profound impact on our thoughts, increased action would even more.
As a future law student, I quickly focused my approach to the circular relationship between poverty and crime. Through the Shepherd Internship Program, I interned at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. As a Community Defender and Felony investigator, my priorities quickly changed from what I could learn to how I could provide my clients with the best representation and case strategy in an environment fraught with challenges. I worked on disciplinary report investigations, expungements, and some of the most egregious criminal cases. It was motivating to work with and learn from the most dedicated champions of liberty who felt an absolute need to ensure that those most intensely affected have the access they deserve to the resources that the American justice system seeks to provide and protect. I ended my summer internship compelled to determine how I can best integrate a legal career with public service.
The Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee enabled me to cultivate my research interest in the post-incarceration access to the labor market. The extraordinary increase in incarceration rates and durations and lack of sufficient institutional resources to stimulate positive reentry compounds the prevalence of poverty in the United States. One of the most profound realizations is that, as Bruce Western, preeminent researcher in this area, says: a person may be released, but not freed and as such, prison has become the new poverty trap.
My experiences through the poverty studies motivates me to reduce the bias in our legal system. Poverty studies that combine firsthand experience, course work, and research empowers students through knowledge and experiences to integrate service into their lives. It allows us to be champions of liberty for those that are without this universal human right. In my case, I am continuing this pursuit in law school at Washington University, after a post-graduate year at a nonprofit that helps to expand opportunities of vulnerable persons.