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The Impact of Interdisciplinary Poverty Studies

By Lacy McAlister

Ms. McAlister graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and a minor in Poverty and Human Capability. She currently lives in Washington D.C. and works for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, focusing on reading proficiency for low-income children.

" After taking the introductory poverty courses, I was convinced that I wanted to have a role in improving educational outcomes for children living in poverty," writes McAlister (W&L 2014).

” After taking the introductory poverty courses, I was convinced that I wanted to have a role in improving educational outcomes for children living in poverty,” writes McAlister (W&L 2014).

The Shepherd Poverty Program was a major factor in my decision to attend Washington and Lee University. I spent my middle and high school years volunteering at several child development centers in Charlotte, NC. I also spent time volunteering as a tutor in elementary school classrooms, and started a summer camp for children. I had several opportunities to explore education and development in Latin America and Africa, and I entered college knowing that I loved learning from children and wanting to learn more about the economic and social systems that affect their education. I was anxious and excited to learn more about my passion for volunteering and service. I didn’t, however, have a clear sense of a specific area of education that I wanted to pursue.

The interdisciplinary nature of the Shepherd Program immediately appealed to me when I was choosing classes my first year. I started by enrolling in Poverty 101 and the subsequent fieldwork course, and I began to explore the Lexington community from a different perspective. Taking Poverty 101 provided a foundation that began to connect my years of volunteering to policy decisions, economic trends and social patterns. I began to realize just how critical an interdisciplinary study of poverty was if I wanted to truly understand and make an impact in the field one day. After taking the introductory poverty courses, I was convinced that I wanted to have a role in improving educational outcomes for children living in poverty. Initially, I had little direction beyond a passion for education and social impact. Had I not had the privilege of participating in the Shepherd Program, I would have likely pursued these issues from one angle, rather than learning how economics, politics, social trends and psychology influence both causes and solutions in the field.

Through a diverse set of classes that were anchored by a sociology major with a concentration in economics, I was able to combine my hands-on volunteer experiences with intensive learning from incredible professors. I was able to work in a local Head Start classroom and volunteer as a Kindergarten reading tutor while writing a research paper on the effectiveness of early childhood development. I spent my Shepherd Internship in rural Tanzania working in a primary school, and I was able to further explore the issues I saw in Tanzania through a Development Economics class and through research on microfinance in Africa. After spending the summer before my senior year in Washington D.C. interning in the Children’s Defense Fund’s summer program, Freedom Schools, I chose to write my Poverty Capstone on the importance of effective summer programming for low-income children. The Shepherd program’s ability to connect immersive learning experiences out of the classroom to rich and relevant interdisciplinary coursework in the classroom had a positive impact on me, and it profoundly shaped my career path.

As I approached my graduation, I spent a considerable amount of time discussing next steps with the many professors who are a part of the Shepherd Program faculty. They provided valuable time and insight as I pursued a career path that was largely undefined. After my participation in the Shepherd Program, I wanted to continue to work on education issues from a collaborative, interdisciplinary perspective, and I was eager to alter the systems that perpetuate educational inequalities in our country.

The fall after graduating from Washington and Lee, I began work at The Annie E. Casey Foundation. The project I work on, The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, is a collaborative effort to improve reading proficiency for low-income children across the country. Based on a strong body of research that links the inability to read in 4th grade to lower 8th grade achievement, lower rates of high school graduation and then the reduced likelihood of sustained employment, the Campaign focuses on a variety of solutions to this issue. They included quality summer programming, school readiness and developmental screenings, a focus on reducing chronic absenteeism, and a focus on equipping parents to be their child’s first teacher, among others. We work with policy makers on the state and national level, with school districts, communities, public schools and libraries and implementation partners across the country. My interest in this cross-sector, collaborative work in the education field is a direct result of my experience in the Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee. I am incredibly grateful to the Shepherd Consortium for providing undergraduate students the opportunities and tools to pursue poverty studies from a variety of viewpoints and disciplines.


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