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Journey to America: Understanding Poverty

By Deeksha Prakash

Ms. Prakash graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2002 with a BA in Politics. She has worked in philanthropy, the non-profit sector, and the private sector, and currently works on strategy and research for Philanthropy Futures, a strategic advisory firm partnering with philanthropists and non-profit leaders to create positive social change. Earlier, Deeksha conducted research and analysis on program, strategy and evaluation for the Stupski Foundation. She also worked on international development for Global Education Partnership, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. For a time, she was a financial analyst at JPMorgan Private Bank. Deeksha holds a Master’s degree in International Education Administration and Policy Analysis from Stanford University. She is fluent in Spanish, French, and Hindi.

"...human suffering and an absence of opportunities presents a deep challenge regardless of context," writes Prakash, who works for Philanthropy Futures, a strategic advisory firm.

“…human suffering and an absence of opportunities presents a deep challenge regardless of context,” writes Prakash (W&L ’02), who works for Philanthropy Futures, a strategic advisory firm.

I stumbled across the Shepherd Program’s black and white flyer now more than fifteen years ago in a mailing I received in New Delhi before coming to the United States as a foreign student to start my first-year at Washington and Lee University. I was intrigued by the idea that I could spend some of my four years of college learning about why poverty exists, what it really means to be poor, and what engaged members of society can do about it. I was no stranger to witnessing poverty, having lived in India. I also wasn’t sure what it would mean to study poverty in a bucolic little town nestled in the Shenandoah Mountains of southwestern Virginia. Somewhat ironically, coming from chaotic India to rural Virginia in fact significantly widened my perspective on poverty. My experiences with the Shepherd program starting my first fall term deepened my knowledge of poverty in many ways, including getting me out into the field to combat it.

The Shepherd program allowed me to spend the summer after my first-year volunteering in Vaca Gorda, a small hilltop village in the Dominican Republic. I was one of three students from American universities participating in the Amigos de las Americas program aimed at providing basic health services to the residents. We convened the villagers to assess who needed latrines, and then we built them with some help from the villagers. On the weekends, we taught a hygiene-focused English language class that drew over 100 children from the neighboring area. We lived with local families, and integrated ourselves into the community for the duration of our eight weeks in country. Because of the Shepherd program, I gained first hand experience in international development work in a developing country. I was able to understand and see how lack of information and access to basic health facilities makes rural communities vulnerable to diseases and other related issues.

I also experienced an important shift in my understanding of the complex nature of poverty through the Shepherd program coursework. Poverty in the developing world and poverty in America can on the surface seem very different; however, as I learned through the program, they are inherently alike. Before coming to the United States, I like many others believed that Americans are generally wealthy. I believed that dire poverty in the streets of New Delhi was real and that poverty in America wasn’t as extreme. The Shepherd program helped me understand that human suffering and an absence of opportunities presents a deep challenge regardless of context.

This takeaway has profoundly influenced some important life choices. My decision to leave private banking to pursue an international educational policy degree was significantly influenced by my experiences in the classroom and volunteering through the Shepherd program. Furthermore, a few years ago, I took a job at a US domestic education, reform-focused private foundation. While my advanced degree dealt with international comparative education policy, I was deeply motivated to work towards improving life options for children of color and poverty in the US through the Stupski Foundation. I continue to address domestic and international issues surrounding social change. For example, I am currently working on a Packard Foundation funded project that examines whether the recent wealth creation in Silicon Valley has resulted in increased individual philanthropy directed towards local Silicon Valley communities that greatly need services and support from community-based organizations.

I didn’t realize that participating in the Shepherd program would, in addition to introducing me to issues of poverty in the United States and abroad, engage me with students from very diverse backgrounds, whom I would never have otherwise encountered. As a foreign student, my experiences with the Shepherd program were more than an introduction to poverty; they were an introduction to the multi-faceted society that constitutes America. Discussions in the classroom brought diverse perspectives to the table; participants representing the full range of the political and socio-economic spectrum created eye-opening dialogue. That these issues mattered and touched all of us in different ways was evident from the passionate discourse.

More than 15 years later, the lessons I learned through the Shepherd program continue to provide very useful context for my understanding of America, and my work in the field of social change and philanthropy.


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