By Theresa Schmidt
Ms. Schmidt earned her Bachelor’s of Social Work from Niagara University in 2014. During this time she had one of the most altering experiences of her life via the Shepherd Consortium interning in Klagetoh, Arizona amongst the Navajo people. She went on to graduate from the State University of New York at Buffalo with her Master’s of Social Work in 2015. In addition to her academic achievements Tracy enjoys music, her cat, and flowers.
“These studies and experiences prepare passionate and dependable people to collaborate with those who often have virtually nothing and no one to depend on,” writes Schmidt (Niagara 2014).
I grew up in rural New York (yes, you non-New Yorkers, that exists). While I love where I grew up, it was a pretty homogenous environment with a subtle, yet noticeable undercurrent of ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding. I would see Confederate Flags hanging from pick-up trucks (this is confusing on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin), hear comments my aunts and uncles would make, and see misguided posts on social media as I grew and matured. While I did not agree with the themes or messages of these acts, I did not know how to respond in an informed manner. While I did not and do not believe that silence is an effective response to these things, I also do not believe in fighting ignorance with ignorance. Frustrated and ill-informed, I entered Niagara University feeling as a minority in my beliefs.
Wow. That’s just one of the many words that comes to mind when I began studying Social Work and minoring in Poverty Studies at Niagara. Not only was I reaffirming my beliefs in equality, human rights, and social justice, but I was learning about how society’s structures can impact a person’s social and economic mobility in that society. I was studying micro and macroeconomics and the impact each has on each other. I was learning about the history, strengths and weaknesses of social programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. I was gaining knowledge to become an informed, mindful person. In addition to my studies I had countless experiences working with impoverished individuals and with organizations working to alleviate poverty. I worked at food pantries and soup kitchens to address the recurring lack of nutrition in these localities due to price and upkeep. I was able to create a guide for residents in impoverished areas of Niagara Falls for local resources and tips on how to create and maintain a healthier lifestyle. Through the Shepherd Internship, I spent a summer among the Navajo people learning about generational oppression and its impact on the rampant poverty that exists on many Native American reservations.
These studies and experiences solidified my desire not only to empower those living in poverty, but to become the most competent professional I can be. I went on to get my Master’s in Social Work, during which I was a case manager for homeless veterans. Working with these vets was another humbling and eye opening experience. If I have learned anything from these experiences it is that poverty is not a standalone issue that can be solved if only we could find the magic cure. It is almost always combined with several other factors: lack of jobs, food deserts, racism, prejudice, historic oppression, mental health, substance abuse, I could go on and on. Studying poverty made me a more aware person of not just poverty, but all of these things. I have become a better person, citizen, and fellow human being because of my poverty studies.
On a final note, I would just like to say this: my poverty studies and my amazing, indescribable experience among the Navajo people via the Shepherd Internship undoubtedly made me a better person, but this is not the point. That is something I want to make very clear. The point is that these studies and experiences prepare passionate and dependable people to collaborate with those who often have virtually nothing and no one to depend on. Ten Navajo children whose parents are virtually nonexistent due to drugs and alcohol still have someone to call when they are upset and feel alone because a college student was chosen for an internship. One hundred fifty families in Niagara County received Christmas gifts they otherwise could not afford because a girl organized a holiday gift sponsorship program at a local church. A homeless veteran finally received SNAP benefits to buy food because an intern showed up for her graduate placement on a particular day. The point here is that these opportunities create agents of compassion, advocacy, and change for those that might not otherwise have the means to fend for themselves without collaboration. It is for the impoverished, the oppressed, and the silenced that these programs exist and matter. I am just lucky to have been and to be a resource to work alongside of persons in need. And hopefully in doing so lives have changed for the better.