By Samuel Hudson, Virginia Military Institute (2017)
The Shepherd Internship seeks to provide students who study poverty with a new perspective. The program offers an amazing and valued experience that can be applied to all areas of life. It is very difficult for students in the classroom environment to apply what they have learned to the real world. Generally, this is not important for the material being delivered; however, in the study of poverty, a real world perspective allows us to reexamine what we have learned, what our assumptions are, and then draw conclusions that may be quite different from our original beliefs. I speak from experience, as my paradigm shift occurred this summer when I experienced real world application of my poverty studies in the chaotic New York City through a Shepherd Internship.
Sam (VMI 2017) with Code/Interactive students in Brooklyn, NY.
Everyone has seen the videos depicting poverty in real and emotional ways, and while valuable, these can be misleading. Prior to my internship, my ideas revolving poverty lined up with what was shown to me. I believed that the homeless man on the street was the average person in poverty. My first realization in New York City was that this perception of poverty is wrong. Typical poverty is not something that we easily recognize. Poverty is not something that has signs that a casual observer can identify. We act as if we are doctors looking for a diagnosis. We watch and we assume and we make judgments based on an individual’s physical appearance without ever saying a word to them. The symptoms of poverty run much deeper than the surface, and we cannot easily tell who is living in poverty and who is not. The fact is that most impoverished people have a roof over their head, enough food to live on, clothing to wear, and a job (if not several). This is the target group of many poverty combative measures, including the measures within my internship.
Many people that I worked with were immigrants, refugees, and green card holders in the most impoverished regions of New York City. In their eyes, they are living a better life that they ever could have hoped for in their home countries. However, many of my Code/Interactive students moved to the city with three generations in a single bedroom apartment. My students didn’t care if they lived in the poorest congressional district in the country where 38% of the population lived below or at the poverty line, while still contending with a cost of living that is 168.8% the national average. Many of these kids are the least supported and most underserved youth in our country. If I said that I was part of a poverty internship, they would get defensive. They would say “I’m not poor” and “I don’t need any help.” This was a complete surprise to me, and it forced me to change my way of thinking about poverty. This is my second lesson from my internship. The public image of poverty is the homeless man on the street; the average American believes that so long as they have a job and a roof over their head, they are not living in poverty. This creates a terrible system where people are unwilling to ask for help out of fear of being shamed and labeled. It’s not that people in poverty do not know that they are poor. Rather they do not want to admit it to others. This keeps them trapped by not allowing them to openly ask for help, and soon they grow accustomed to their circumstances, and learned helplessness sets in. This mindset is passed down through generations, yet we must break this chain by providing a path of escape.
Code/Interactive seeks to provide underserved youth an opportunity to discover that there is a middle class in America that they can move into if they choose. This amazing program acts as a catalyst for the perception change necessary for the students to realize that they are capable. When I arrived in New York at the beginning of the summer, my natural instinct was to try finding a second job. I wanted to actively search and find new ways of saving money, and bettering my situation. These are things that my students did not think to do. They were happy and content where they were, and did not have the motivation and drive to better their situation. The reason is that I knew what I was missing. I knew that there was a middle class with a comparatively cushy lifestyle that I could easily join if I wanted to. However, my students were never exposed to that kind of life. Therefore, they had no drive to enter it. My students were far smarter than I am, yet they believed it was impossible to rise above their situation and improve their lives. The single most wasted resource in the world is the ingenuity, intelligence, and skills of the impoverished, yet our society ignores the potential gain.
Code/Interactive seeks to shift these boundaries and break the chain and cycle of poverty in the Bronx. We introduced the students to a new world of opportunities and privilege that they had never experienced. We placed select students in technology companies all over New York. Technology companies such as Buzzfeed, Business Insider, and Salesforce hired our students for six weeks in paid intern positions. Our students interacted with adults professionally and socially, learning more each day about their jobs, those around them, and most importantly about themselves and what they were missing. What I learned and am taking away from this summer is just a fraction of what they learned. I have gained a whole new perspective on poverty and on what it means to be poor, but these amazing students had their entire world flipped upside down. Amazingly, Code/Interactive never explained these ideas to them, but they got it. At the end of the summer, I asked my students how many of them wanted to go to college. Every single one of them raised his or her hand. I’m willing to bet that they were happy to be shown a new perspective.
Ostensibly my primary responsibility was to manage these interns and ensure that they were successful in their internships through professional development sessions every Friday. In reality, that’s not what I did. I didn’t manage them; I mentored them. I acted as a model that they could latch onto for support as the reality of the world sunk in. Code/Interactive provided a great deal of support to our students, and in some cases we were the only support that our students received. I wasn’t just a teacher to them or a guy telling them what to do. I had to act as a trusted mentor; someone that they could come to with questions, problems, and concerns. As a privileged white male, I had no idea some of their most pressing problems existed, yet they trusted me enough to come and ask for advice, and help. This experience was powerful and worthwhile. I am gratified and humbled that they used me as a resource.
I went into this internship focused on serving those in need. The Shepherd Internship and Code/Interactive provided the opportunity for me to learn through that service. Beyond this learning and service, I was provided something that I needed: a deeper understanding, appreciation, respect, and love for the young men and women of the Bronx who need a little push in the right direction. I also came away with a better appreciation and respect for the various organizations that provide this opportunity for them.