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From Volunteer Service as a Nice Pastime to Career Pathways That Diminish Poverty

I was already a service-minded individual when I took my first courses with the Shepherd program. I had extensive volunteering experience in high school, but really only viewed community service as an extracurricular activity or a pastime. After participating in the SHECP for the past three years, I am now a service-minded individual with purpose, direction, and opportunity.

"I learned how to become a stable, trustworthy fixture in the community by reading at Spanish masses, conducting house visits, providing bilingual summer camps for immigrant children, teaching bilingual adult education courses, etc." writes Nastoff (W&L 2016).

“I learned how to become a stable, trustworthy fixture in the community by reading at Spanish masses, conducting house visits, providing bilingual summer camps for immigrant children, teaching bilingual adult education courses, etc.” writes Nastoff (W&L 2016) (Far right).

The Poverty and Human Capability Studies (PHCS) minor consists of more than just coursework; it includes an internship, scholarship opportunities, and extended mentorship throughout one’s college experience. My first two poverty courses, POV 101 and 102, set my trajectory for the following years. They expanded my definition of poverty from income deficiency to include a capability deficiency that would inhibit persons’ freedom to pursue a life they value. I learned that education could be identified as one of the primary sources of poverty; also, I learned how it can contribute to the intergenerational cycle of poverty.  My initial exposure to data explaining the relationship between education and poverty was the first time I was able to quantify the impact I made volunteering in high school. I found that students from low-income families experience an educational disadvantage, an achievement gap that is compounded each year. By enumerating the benefits of actions such as tutoring, after-school programs, early childhood education, etc., the Shepherd Program turned my pastime into a sense of vocation.

The service-learning component of these primary courses required students to volunteer 20 hours in various community service organizations in the surrounding area. I worked at Building Bridges, an enrichment-based after school organization. This program tutored low-income students and provided them outlets to explore academically inspiring activities. There was a photography class, chess club, karate class, and radio show, among others.

The two components of this class jointly instigated my search to make a difference in kids’ lives and education. I witnessed first-hand this program’s impact on students’ confidence and ambition. At the same time, my studies revealed flaws of the education system and, nevertheless, its capacity to mitigate the cycle of poverty.

My decision to adopt the PHCS minor, however, was not made until the end of my summer internship.  I interned in Central Kentucky with a nonprofit organization called Centro Latino. Centro Latino is a nonprofit organization that aims to promote the Hispanic population’s self-sufficiency and independence through social justice, education and health care initiatives. As is indicated by the organization’s mission, my tasks as a Shepherd Intern were diverse and meaningful. I observed firsthand the unique isolation of the immigrant community and the language and cultural barriers it faced to immersion in Danville, KY, social activities and culture. It was the first time I learned the challenge of integrating immigrant community. I learned how to become a stable, trustworthy fixture in the community by reading at Spanish masses, conducting house visits, providing bilingual summer camps for immigrant children, teaching bilingual adult education courses, etc. By the end of my stint with Centro Latino, I had been invited into the very same homes that were hesitant to open their doors to me weeks earlier. I found that education isn’t necessarily confined to classroom learning; it is about learning to advocate for oneself and function effectively in a community.

This internship informed my broader goals and sense of vocation by giving me an insider view of the workings of nonprofit organizations. I was proud to contribute to yet another organization that exerted efforts to alleviate many symptoms of poverty among the immigrant population, not only income poverty.  I was also able to identify aspects of nonprofit work that did not appeal to me (or just didn’t seem to work). I worked in close proximity with my internship coordinator. Over the course of the summer, it seemed that she was on a fast track to being burnt out; she had overextended herself and had virtually become another family member and advocate for each immigrant family. This relationship put significant stress on my supervisor and increased the dependency of many families on her assistance.  My outsider perspective helped me formulate my own model of sustainable service that will keep me from overextending myself and losing my passion for serving others. My supervisor and I still keep in touch to this day, and she has served as a reference for me on my résumé. We still learn from and support one another in our attempts to alleviate disadvantage, even from across the country. These course and internship experiences compelled me to add the PHCS minor by opening my eyes to the true impact and significance of community service work in reducing poverty. The Shepherd Program does not just mobilize volunteers; it compels its students to look at poverty with a critical and academic eye. This academic facet of our service work provided a myriad of opportunities to get involved beyond the traditional view of volunteer work (legal work, educational work, community development, health care, etc.) The Shepherd program teaches that one can help fight poverty virtually through any discipline. Following the Shepherd Internship, I entertained prospects of becoming an immigration lawyer or even an education policy maker.

The following year, I sought to find a similar summer opportunity in order to build on my previous observations of the immigrant population and to maintain my Spanish language skills. I applied to a plethora of immigration policy-related summer internships, armed with at least a dozen letters of recommendation written by the SHECP director on my behalf. However, as I had been applying from Spain during my semester abroad, I had trouble finding the right place for myself.  My poverty professors made it their missions to help me find a meaningful summer opportunity. They suggested I submit a letter of intent, budget, and résumé to the provost for a stipend from as special Washington and Lee endowment, which supports students in curriculum-related projects that engage them in addressing the greatest social and policy issues.  I was allocated a summer stipend for rent and travel to and from my work with NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center in Harrisonburg, VA. Without the mentorship of the SHECP program, it is possible that I never would have found a meaningful, educational summer experience—I definitely could not have funded it.

As a summer intern at NewBridges IRC, my primary responsibility was to help our clientele with whatever assistance they required. Most times they needed help with health-care fee reduction, welfare applications, or house weatherization applications.  Our office generally served as a bilingual resource and advocate for the immigrant population in all fields, a one-stop shop. I encountered diverse problems throughout my summer at NewBridges that required research and ingenuity: I tried to find a hospital that would perform a pancreas transplant on an undocumented immigrant without health insurance; I researched and translated information on bankruptcy; I battled the IRS, etc. This experience showed me the extent to which language and educational barriers inhibit the immigrant population from functioning as self-sufficient members of the community. On top of all these barriers, immigration lawyers and notaries frequently took advantage of members of the immigrant population by overcharging them and filing paperwork that would actually get them deported. By the end of this internship, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in immigration law, so that I would be able to advocate for these vulnerable community members.

The Shepherd Program was arguably the most influential aspect of my education at Washington and Lee University.  It helped me come through work in the classroom and service learning to understand that solving poverty is much more complex than mere income supplements or social work. It can be solved jointly through education initiatives, job training, criminal justice initiatives, etc. It is because of the SHECP that I pursued and was accepted into the Teach for America programs to be an Early Childhood Education professional in Los Angeles. I never would have thought this passion for service could be anything more than a pastime. As a result of my coursework and internships, I knew the movement for educational equity was something worthy of my participation; it addresses poverty and lack of opportunity at a more sophisticated level than putting a band aid on current sores. I cannot wait to apply all I have learned from my PHCS minor in the classroom so my students will be equipped with the necessary tools to pursue their dreams.


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