By Rob Turner
Mr. Turner graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2002 with a B.A. in Religious Studies. He also completed a M.A. in Theology at Lexington Theological Seminary, with a thesis entitled Faithful Witnesses: the Lives and Theologies of Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He has worked at the Catholic Action Center (Lexington, KY), in the Shepherd Poverty Program at Washington and Lee (Lexington, VA), and at Lexington KY Habitat for Humanity. He has recently joined the team at Mary’s Meals, which works in various countries to feed children one nutritious meal in their place of education. Robbie lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, Melissa, and their three children, where he also assists coaching with elementary and high school basketball teams.
“The aspect of poverty studies education that continues to resonate most deeply with me is that vital connection between intellectual rigor and hands-on,” writes Turner (W&L 2002).
I first heard of the Shepherd Program from a fellow student and friend during the fall semester of my sophomore year at Washington and Lee in 1999. At the time, I had some burgeoning but very vague interests in community service, and in expanding my experiences beyond the norms of campus life. My friend’s suggestion that I consider taking the Poverty 101 class and maybe even apply for a summer internship was – it is not too extreme to say – life changing.
I became engaged with some of the co-curricular service opportunities offered through the Shepherd Program through the fall and winter of 1999 and 2000, then took the six week intensive Spring Term Poverty 101 class. The opportunities afforded by the Shepherd Program (and related Nabors Service League at W&L) were crucially transformative for three reasons: 1) there was some structure, with faculty and student leadership, to help naïve students such as myself engage with community agencies in a manner that was sustainable and organized; 2) there were other students from a variety of majors and curricular interests engaged in such activities with one another; and 3) the curricular work in the classroom – from high level statistical analysis from leading economists to narratives of inner-city Chicago youth – allowed for helpful and critical academic reflection to go along with my hands-on experiences. These factors helped make what I was learning and experiencing more than just a flash in the pan: personal engagement with members of the community with whom I had previously not known were enlightening, and the chance to think deeply about the issues related to the issues I was encountering in service opportunities was intellectually stimulating and made even an inexperienced sophomore such as myself realize that our academic work could have real impact on our real world activities – and vice versa.
After Poverty 101 I participated in a summer internship at the Open Door with poor persons and those serving with them in a Christian community setting. The day to day work of serving those in need was different than even regular volunteer experiences while at Washington and Lee, but the readings and thinking I had done poverty 101 class were never out of mind. Just as crucially, at the end of this intense internship, I gathered at a closing conference with fellow student interns from various colleges who had equally important experiences at other service sites across the country. Again, the opportunity to engage intellectually with diverse students, all with a focus on the various aspects of poverty and serious (and complicated) solutions to poverty, was priceless.
Poverty 101 and co-curricular work shaped the rest of my undergraduate and graduate studies. Even in classes not necessarily connected with Poverty 101, the question of “how does this topic relate to the poor” was always present.
My career opportunities since graduation include a soup kitchen in Lexington, KY, similar to my Shepherd Internship; returning to Washington and Lee to work in its Shepherd Program as a staff person assisting students’ growing awareness of poverty issues and connecting their service work to their wider curricular interests and vocational goals; and a Grant Writer with Lexington Habitat for Humanity. I will soon to start with Mary’s Meals, an international aid organization working to feed very poor children in their places of education. These opportunities can all be traced to the challenges, encouragement, and enlightenment I experience as a student in the Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee.
Through all these experiences, the aspect of the poverty studies education that continues to resonate most deeply with me is that vital connection between intellectual rigor and hands-on, real world experiences that expand opportunities for poor persons. Without real life experience with those in need in any community, even the best academic exercises fail to produce fruits that benefit the common good; likewise, great service and community engagement experiences can be lacking when the intellectual tools – across disciplines – are not fully employed to work for more efficient assistance and structural changes to impact the fight against poverty. Through my time as student, a volunteer, a staff person working other students, and in various professional experiences, all that I learned in the Shepherd Program has shaped my thoughts and actions in a way that has led to wonderful opportunities and, I hope, to community engagement that uses “head and heart” to be of service.