How Understanding Poverty Changed My Perspective on Flourishing

By Caitlin Schuman

Ms. Schuman graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2012 with a major in Biochemistry and minors in Poverty and Human Capability Studies and German. Through the Poverty Studies program, she interned at Bethesda Hospice and Children’s Home in George, South Africa , providing home-based nursing care to end-stage AIDS, tuberculosis, and cancer patients. At Washington and Lee she coordinated the Charleston, WV pre-orientation service program for entering students; worked with the local operation of Campus Kitchens; assisted in organizing student mentoring at a local middle school; and cofounded a student disaster relief response to the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Subsequent to graduation Caitlin has earned an M.S. in Clinical and Health Services Research from Dartmouth and worked as a healthcare consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton.

"The consequences of poverty reach into every corner of the body, the home, the family, and the community and can impact health and well-being long into adulthood, even if financial stability is gained," writes Schuman (W&L 2012).

“The consequences of poverty reach into every corner of the body, the home, the family, and the community and can impact health and well-being long into adulthood, even if financial stability is gained,” writes Schuman (W&L 2012).


Poverty studies at Washington and Lee provided the environment and experiences that not only reshaped the purpose of my education and work but also grounded me in relationship to my community. In studying human capability and flourishing, I was immersed physically and intellectually in worlds far different from my upbringing. The more time I spent in poverty studies and under the influence of its mentoring—in the course readings and class discussions and especially in my various service commitments—the more the pressures and struggles of the poor came to life in technicolor, challenging my prior assumption that poverty boiled down to opportunity and work ethic. Though my family had experienced periods of low income and financial hardship in my childhood, I began to realize how our history of educational achievement, successful immigration, and career progression fundamentally reoriented my expectations of myself and the world. The legacy of my parents and grandparents declared the vibrancy of hope. In contrast, entrenched poverty is accompanied by stories of defeat and discrimination, of failure and prolonged famine, of social cycles of despair. The consequences of poverty reach into every corner of the body, the home, the family, and the community and can impact health and well-being long into adulthood, even if financial stability is gained.

As I look back on my experiences in the poverty studies program, this was the lesson that my coursework, volunteering, and internship all conspired to give: as a nation we cannot guarantee the right to the pursuit of happiness while denying the capabilities and agency for that pursuit. To provide an analogy, it is much like giving a paraplegic tennis shoes and saying that s/he has the right to walk freely; it is a beautiful principle but a cruel and blind denial of reality. Thankfully, because poverty is so much more than financial status, we are given a myriad of opportunities to either strengthen or weaken the capability and agency of those around us and change their capacity for flourishing. Studying the driving forces behind—and long-reaching impacts of—poverty during college not only strengthened my commitment to serving the health and well-being of populations, but changed how I desire to serve the flourishing of my community on every level. Practically speaking, poverty studies informed my graduate education; I pursued a master’s degree in Clinical and Health Services Research to hone my understanding of the social, organizational, environmental, and care factors that drive population health: a key indicator – and consequence – of the challenges to human capability and flourishing. Through my ongoing career and community engagement, I aim to participate in alleviating the disparities in the key determinants of human capability, and I have found mentoring younger women and girls through my church and local schools to be one of the most rewarding and challenging ways to engage these concerns. While studying poverty and human capability did also impact my political perspectives, it has had far greater consequences for my interactions with family, friends, and strangers on the street; my approach to volunteering and giving; my investment in causes and organizations; and my views on organizations’ social responsibility. Ultimately, poverty studies taught me more deeply what it means to be human and to serve the human dignity and potential of every person around me. That is why my work focuses on quantitative and qualitative research to understand population health, enhance organizational effectiveness and integrity, and serve social flourishing.

Faithfully integrating these lessons into my grandest and most mundane interactions and decisions will be a lifelong endeavor.

#DartmouthInstituteforHealthPolicyandClinicalPractice #BoozAllenHamilton #CampusKitchens #WVVolunteerVenture #BethesdaHospiceandChildrensHome

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