From Poverty 101 to Professor of Sociology

By Jill Waity, Ph.D.

When I first began college at Washington and Lee University, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had always done volunteer work, and had a vague notion that I wanted to help people after I graduated, but I didn’t know what that really meant until I took Introduction to Poverty and Human Capability. Taking that class set me on the course that I ended up following to where I am today.

Jill Waity, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Sociology and Criminology Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Jill Waity, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Sociology and Criminology Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.


I majored in Sociology and Anthropology, and participated in the Shepherd Program (although it was still in its beginning stages). This involved completing an internship as well as a capstone Poverty Studies course. While my original internship working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Baltimore didn’t work out (my car was stolen so I moved back home), I completed my internship at Volunteers of America, teaching basic literacy and English for Speakers of Other Languages. The poverty capstone course, where I wrote my first research paper on a poverty-related topic, prepared me for graduate school (although I didn’t know that is where I would end up).

After graduation, I worked for a year at a non-profit organization in Baltimore as part of an AmeriCorps-type program that Washington and Lee was starting. I worked with students from the city schools on community service projects that revitalized their communities. I also worked with students from the surrounding private and county schools on community service projects in the city. Despite the fact that my car had been stolen the last time I lived in Baltimore, I still wanted to go back and learn more about the city. I learned two things from this experience: Baltimore had extreme levels of inequality, and I wanted to do more than just work in direct service. I thought back to everything that I had learned from the Shepherd Program, and realized it was time to go to graduate school.

In 2013, I earned my Ph.D. in Sociology from Indiana University Bloomington, with a minor in Public Policy through the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. I focused my studies on inequality in general with a specific concentration on poverty. I chose my minor because I wanted to be able to enact change with my research, not just publish it in academic journals. My dissertation was on food insecurity, access to food assistance, and the inequalities that exist between rural and urban areas.

I am currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Sociology and Criminology Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. UNCW has one of the few undergraduate public sociology programs in the country. In this program, students conduct community-based research and then present their findings in academic settings as well as to the greater Wilmington community. My goal in the Sociology of Poverty course that I teach is to equip students with the knowledge to produce change in their community, just like the poverty studies course did for me in my first year at Washington and Lee. I continue to research issues related to poverty, including food insecurity and access to food assistance, and persistent poverty in the South.

I believe so strongly in the Shepherd Program that right now I am advocating for UNCW to join as one of the consortium schools. UNCW is well positioned to offer both a focus on poverty overall and also courses in various disciplines (including Sociology) tailored to specific interests that will enrich and deepen knowledge gained through an introductory poverty studies course. The experiences that I had were life changing and set me on my current path, and I would love to be able to give my students the same amazing opportunities that I once had.

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