By Emily Darling
Ms. Darling graduated from Washington and Lee University (W&L) in 2011 with a major in Business Administration and a minor in Poverty and Human Capability. After graduation, she moved to Houston, Texas for an Elrod (post-graduate) Fellowship with Genesys Works and currently works in development at Rice University.
“Every student, regardless of socioeconomic background, should have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and work experience to enter and thrive in the economic mainstream,” writes Darling (W&L 2011)
I value my undergraduate, liberal arts education because it gave me the freedom and opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary studies that delved deeper than technical skills and encouraged more creative, engaged thinking. While many of my courses were toward my major in Business Administration, my most meaningful and impactful experiences were those related to the Shepherd Poverty Program. From volunteering at the Office on Youth and the W&L Campus Kitchen to participating in Nabors Service Days, I was able to see beyond the immediate W&L community to those throughout the community in which I lived.
The summer after my sophomore year, my Shepherd internship took me to Boston where I worked at Tenacity. During my short time with the organization, I saw firsthand how it engaged over 5,000 low-income students across the city through summer literacy and tennis programs. However, those services were only the tip of the iceberg. Beyond the summer program, Tenacity provides elementary, middle, and high school students with resources through in-school and after-school programs to achieve excellence in college and beyond. To-date, the organization’s impact has reached 30,000+ students.
It was those outreach experiences during college that: 1) led me to my senior capstone project on the importance of early childhood interventions in the form of childcare and education, and 2) informed my path post-W&L. After graduation, a post-graduate Elrod Fellowship took me to Genesys Works in Houston, Texas: the fourth largest city in the U.S., a sprawling metropolitan area that is ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, and at the time, one of the strongest employment markets in the nation. According to the Houston Area Survey published each year by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, while the market was one of the strongest, it “included large numbers of ‘poverty-level’ jobs that offer little opportunity for advancement.” This opportunity is mostly predicated on access to opportunity and resources such as quality education. Furthermore, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020 approximately 2/3 of all jobs created will require some form of postsecondary education. Having a lot of people with dead-end jobs plus a lot of jobs without qualified people to occupy them is a recipe for social and economic disaster. With this outlook, now more than ever, it is important to provide students, especially those who are from low-income communities, with academic, financial, and social foundations, giving them a competitive edge to pursue higher education and its outcomes. This is exactly why the work of organizations such as Genesys Works is so important.
At Genesys Works, we prepared low-income high school students for corporate internships in STEM fields and success in postsecondary education. For two years, I worked with cohorts of economically-disadvantaged, minority high school students, training them for success in the corporate world and preparing them for college. The majority of my students were the first generation to graduate from high school, let alone go to college, and many were stuck with the mindset that a minimum wage job that offered endless hours was their future. Having been raised in an endlessly loving and supportive family and then attending W&L where I had a similar experience, I felt unprepared and unqualified to handle many of the challenges my students faced away from Genesys Works (i.e. family deportation, teen pregnancy, and eviction). To be honest, it was the emotional toll and oftentimes feeling unable to adequately help them that led me to a new role in development. I was and still am extremely passionate about the mission of Genesys Works –that every student, regardless of socioeconomic background, should have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and work experience to enter and thrive in the economic mainstream. I was also confident that after having two years of direct experience with my students, I was able to speak effectively about the organization and its impact firsthand.
This interest in development led me to my current role at Rice University in Corporate and Foundation Relations. I have the opportunity to interact with faculty, staff, and students across campus and learn about the funding priorities of the university, schools, and programs. Similar to my own undergraduate experience, Rice has a program in Poverty, Justice, and Human Capabilities with a service learning component. In fact, it was formed in consultation with the Shepherd Program at my alma mater. While it is not a member of the Shepherd Consortium, it is great to see other universities embracing this type of liberal arts education that encourage students to embrace interdisciplinary experiences. Rice is also home to the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, as mentioned earlier. For several years, I have had the opportunity to attend the Kinder Institute Luncheon where renowned sociologist Steve Klineberg presents the annual Houston Area Survey, which measures the ongoing economic and demographic changes in Houston. Each time, I come away from the lunch reinvigorated by the ongoing economic and demographic transformation of the city, so my undergraduate poverty studies prepared me for and directed me to a continuing education in Houston.
Finally, I want to acknowledge the networks that have helped guide me along the way. First, the faculty and staff in the Shepherd Program at W&L were extremely supportive in my academic and post-W&L endeavors. Second, I was welcomed to Houston nearly five years ago by a mentor for the Elrod (post-graduate) Fellowship program. He has been extremely supportive and makes every effort to connect me with other fellows, as well as leaders in the Houston community. I have experienced firsthand how a vibrant post-graduate poverty studies education can be seamless with one’s undergraduate education. Now a development officer for a major university, I know more vividly than ever before that generous supporters who give of their time and financial resources have made my undergraduate and post-graduate education possible.