"We have a problem in this country that we have to attend to. And that's why you're here."
The problem in question was poverty, and Harlan Beckley, director of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SCHEP), was addressing the 92 college and law students who gathered in Lexington last weekend to prepare for their unusual eight-week internships.
"More than one-fifth of Americans under the age of 18 live in households in poverty," Beckley told the students, who represented 17 of the 19 consortium members. "We have a lot of evidence that people who live in those households for any appreciable time are going to have trouble with school, are going to have trouble with their health, are going to have trouble succeeding in the labor market. Not everybody will have trouble. Some people do just fine. But it's not a good thing."
As the students fan out across the country for positions with agencies that work to benefit impoverished members of society, Beckley warned them not to think that they are going to save the world in the next eight weeks.
"You can't do everything," he said. "But you can begin to figure out where you're going to focus so that you can make a difference."
The experience, he added, has the potential to be a transformative one. Past interns continued to testify to the importance of the internships in their lives.
Beckley, the Fletcher Otey Thomas Professor of Religion at W&L, who founded the University's Shepherd Poverty Program, told the students that while they are going to be involved in service and in civic engagement, the most important part of the summer will be what they learn.
"This is part of your education," he said. "Don't think of the internship as going out and doing good things for people, though you will be doing that. Think of it as a part of your education, and the focus of this education is on poverty."
This is the second year for the SCHEP-sponsored internships. The consortium was established in 2011, and the internships carry forward a collaborative program that was previously coordinated by Washington and Lee's Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability. The orientation program was held at both Washington and Lee and neighboring Virginia Military Institute, which is a consortium member.
Through their internships, students learn firsthand about the multiple dimensions of poverty in the United States. They work alongside individuals who are seeking to improve their communities. The agencies are located in urban and rural sites in the U.S. and focus on education, health care, legal services, housing, hunger, social and economic needs, and community-building efforts.
Washington and Lee junior Nicky Peacher, a politics major from Weston, Mass., will be in Baltimore, working with Bridges at St. Paul School, a program that equips motivated Baltimore City youth with the tools to become future leaders.
"I'm anxious to get a good perspective on what these students need in terms of getting access to college," said Peacher. "Ever since I came to W&L, I've been interested in getting involved in the Shepherd Program, and I'm now minoring in poverty studies."
Maris Howell will be a junior at John Carroll University in the fall. A Bowie, Md., native, she is majoring in peace, justice and human rights at the Cleveland institution. Her internship will be in Washington, D.C., with Bread for the City, a private, non-profit organization that provides vulnerable residents with services including food, clothing, medical care and legal and social services.
"We'll actually be living in Georgetown but working with Bread for the City, where I'll be a case worker with people who are without income and trying to find public housing," Howell said. "Among other things, I want to try to understand how it's possible for people with such widely different income levels to be living just down the street from one another."
Dominik Taylor, of Yorktown, Va., is a third-year student in Washington and Lee's School of Law. His goal is to become a public defender, and he has been assigned to the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.
"I'm looking to see what it's like defending indigent clients in the big city," Taylor said. "I'm anxious to understand how all these issues — poverty, lack of education, mental health problems — play in these clients' lives, and how they end up in the criminal justice system. All these issues will have an impact on my job as a future lawyer, and I want to see how that plays out."
Among the other agencies where the SCHEP interns will be working are the Atlanta Food Bank, Legal Aid of West Virginia, the Clinton Foundation, in New York, the Family Center, in Helena, Ark., and St. Anne's Mission to the Navajo Nation, in Arizona.
At the end of the internships, the students will reconvene at Washington and Lee for a closing conference and for a symposium at VMI featuring presentations by national leaders in the field of poverty studies.
"Ultimately, what we want you to learn is how your profession can diminish poverty," Beckley told the students. "What can you do as a future physician, a future educator, a future lawyer, a future businessperson, a future policy maker, a future academic, whatever you choose to do — what can you do to diminish poverty in this country? What can you do in your future civic leadership to diminish poverty?"
The Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty comprises Baylor University, Berea College, Centre College, the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, the College of Wooster, Elon University, Furman University, Hendrix College, John Carroll University, Lynchburg College, Marymount University, Middlebury College, Millsaps College, Niagara University, Spelman College, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Notre Dame, Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs