How Poverty Studies Can Define and Direct a Complete Education

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“The Shepherd Program permanently changed the way I see the world, directed my education, and influenced my passions.”


Caroline Gill graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, a minor in Poverty & Human Capability Studies, and a minor in Mathematics. She currently lives in New York City and works for J.P. Morgan as an Investment Banking Analyst in their Debt Capital Markets group.

My exposure to the Shepherd Poverty Program began like many other students at Washington and Lee: on a pre-orientation trip through the Volunteer Venture program. Initially I was motivated to sign up for the trip by the idea of meeting friends before school started and spending a week doing community service in one of my favorite cities, Washington DC. I approached the Volunteer Venture program as a starting point for the community service I hoped to continue in college, but with the mindset that this service would be strictly extracurricular. However, my experience in the Shepherd Poverty Program during my four years at Washington and Lee was certainly not extracurricular; it defined and directed my education.

What I found in the Shepherd Poverty Program was challenging, thought-provoking coursework that shaped the whole person, producing well-rounded, knowledgeable global citizens. The very foundation of the program is that it is interdisciplinary. In addition to social workers and non-profit service providers, we need doctors, economists, accountants, bankers, consultants, artists, voters, and parents who better understand the poverty this nation and world face. As an economics major, I studied theories, models and research techniques. But it was the economics classes I took in conjunction with the Poverty Program that challenged me to apply these textbook topics to the world around me, to consider the economics of healthcare, of education, of social issues. Beyond my major, the Shepherd Poverty Program pushed me to explore other disciplines I would have otherwise thought outside my academic comfort zone—such as Sociology and Journalism.

As I continued to sign up for courses associated with the Shepherd Program, I came into contact with more and more professors who would become incredible mentors to me. These professors encouraged me to keep asking questions, to explore my own interests and passions, and to seek out justice in the world around me. These professors were the ones who encouraged me to take a leap of faith and go study Economics of Development at the University of Oxford in England for a semester. They were the ones who encouraged me to take on a capstone topic (studying the regressive nature of select US Tax Expenditures) which I was initially intimidated by and felt inadequate to tackle. Even two years after graduation, I know these professors are cheering me on, eager to see me make my mark on the world.

In addition to integrating discussions of poverty into the curriculum of numerous academic departments, the Shepherd Program sends students into the community to gain experience with poverty issues first hand. It is much easier to simplify poverty while sitting around a table in a seminar class, but without any engagement with the community, you miss the incredible complexity of this issue. Nothing serves better to shatter preconceived notions and ignorance than learning the stories of others. The Shepherd Poverty Program provided me with opportunities to engage with the community in Lexington and beyond. I ate lunch each week with adults with disabilities at the Magnolia Center and delivered hot meals to the homes of my Rockbridge County neighbors. I think the most impactful experience for me was a summer spent living in Camden, New Jersey while participating in the Shepherd Alliance internship. I certainly did not come close to feeling what it was really like to experience poverty, but I was fortunate to have glimpses of what it could feel like. We talk and read about food deserts in inner cities, but it was not until I lived in Camden that I felt the reality and severity of this situation, as I drove 20 minutes to the neighboring New Jersey suburb for food knowing that owning a car was not the reality for many of my Camden neighbors. I felt the discomfort that came when the sun started to go down and I raced back to my apartment, fearful of the violence that constantly disrupts Camden neighborhoods. I was evacuated for a weekend because the city of Camden ran out of water; again, an escape my neighbors were not afforded. Before living in Camden, I did not know how to conceptualize what it looked like to question if my most basic needs would be met each day. My experience in Camden left me with a conviction that we all need to care deeply about this issue, that we all have a role to play, and that any solution will take all of us. The causes of poverty are complex, interconnected, and deeply rooted—and I have so much more to learn. The Shepherd Poverty Program equipped me with an academic foundation enhanced by real world experience, which I can take forth into the world as a more knowledgeable citizen determined to make an impact.

At this point, I am not sure where exactly my career path will take me. What I do know is that the Shepherd Program permanently changed the way I see the world, directed my education, and influenced my passions. The Program was an integral part of my time at Washington and Lee and one that enhanced my experience greatly.

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