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Class Questions

Yet this past spring break, her last at Washington and Lee, during a time when most students were hanging out at Sigma Chi's annual Derby Days or going to all-night parties at frat houses down by the river, Ingrid was at places like the Lylburn Downing Community Center and the Eagle's Nest Clubhouse, a day center for low-income mentally retarded adults. She was leading a weeklong trial that was one of the last hurdles to establishing a local branch of the Campus Kitchens Project, an initiative developed by Robert Egger, the founder of D.C. Central Kitchen. Essentially, CKP uses student volunteers to turn leftover food that colleges and universities would typically throw away -- the roast beef and oranges from a catered dinner, say -- into meals for shelters and agencies that help the poor. Ideally, the agencies then are able to spend more of their money providing services instead of buying food. And the student volunteers -- most of whom know poverty simply as blanket-covered lumps sleeping on the streets -- expand their horizons, being required not only to deliver and serve meals to those lumps, but to then sit down, eat with them and learn their names.

Before this spring, Ingrid had worked for two years to convince everyone -- from the university provost to the people in dining services -- that such a program was viable at Washington and Lee. (They already exist at a handful of universities across the country.) But the impulse that led her to this effort had been working on her for even longer -- since her sophomore year, when she stumbled across the university's unique poverty studies program.

For Ingrid, that first course, known as Poverty 101, was a revelation. And it led her down a path that has now culminated in a difficult choice. If the CKP trial succeeded, university administrators had been saying, she could stay on running it as a paid employee after graduation. It was something she'd considered, a future in the nonprofit world. But, as a good student who'd be graduating with a degree in economics, she also had the option of reaching for a high-paying job, one that came with all the vacations and parental approval she was used to. Daily, she toggled back and forth.

At the community center, though, she kept her struggle to herself. Evident was only the sheer happiness of being, in that moment, exactly where she wanted to be.

"Thanks for letting us come!" Ingrid told the kids as she packed up. Some of them looked at her, perplexed. But Dunn just beamed. "It's like she was born to do this."

THE SHEPHERD PROGRAM for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability is that rare kind of thing that can change your life. It is, its founders say, the only program of its kind in any undergraduate institution in the country. Any student in any major can sign up, but to earn the program's certificate, one must do not only the academic work -- reading liberal and conservative thinkers on theories of poverty and attending lectures on what it is to be poor -- but also complete a rigorous eight-week summer internship. Side by side with undergrads from Berea College, a largely low-income school in Kentucky, and from the historic black colleges of Morehouse and Spelman in Atlanta, they work, live with and live like the poorest of the poor, subsisting on $10 or less a day and bunking at institutions like the District's N Street Village women's shelter.

That the program is based at Washington and Lee University, a school for the elite and the privileged since 1749, is somewhat ironic. This is a school that, in some media and college rankings, turns out among the most CEOs, corporate presidents and political leaders per capita of any university in the nation -- about one-third of all graduates in a given year are from its Williams School of Commerce, Economics and Politics. W & L students are overwhelmingly white, largely from families who can easily pay the $27,960 annual tuition. Its reputation is Southern and conservative: It was one of the last all-male schools to admit women, in 1985, and this spring men from one fraternity were proudly sporting T-shirts with lines from a Hank Williams Jr. song: "If the South woulda won, we woulda had it made."

Both the school's honor system -- students promise never to lie, cheat or steal; they leave their doors unlocked and take final exams, unproctored, whenever they are ready -- and its tradition of gentlemanly conduct, its brochures read, can be traced directly to one of its presidents, Robert E. Lee. The Confederate general, who took up residence "on the Hill," as students refer to the campus, a few months after he surrendered at Appomattox, built the stately president's house. He lies buried under Lee Chapel.

It was a school Ingrid Easton, the youngest of three children, felt instantly comfortable with when she arrived as a freshman in fall 2002. Her older sister, who works for a defense contractor in the District, had gone to Washington and Lee and loved it. Ingrid quickly joined the tennis team and a sorority. "I was very social in high school," she said. "When I came to college, I just wanted to have fun."

But by her sophomore year, Ingrid began to have questions about what to do with her life and what gave one's life meaning. She joined a Christian youth fellowship. She deactivated her sorority membership -- all that judging of other young women began to seem so petty. She committed to hundreds of hours of community service. And she fell into the Poverty 101 class, simply because her sister had told her that Harlan Beckley, its professor, was a good teacher.

The idea behind the intense study of poverty never was to turn out an army of social workers, and, by and large, it doesn't. "We still want to graduate lawyers, physicians, businesspeople, educators," says Beckley, who developed the program. "The goal is to have students understand how their profession impinges and impacts poverty. And, as a result, they may want to approach things differently."

Beckley was a religion professor at the college in the mid-1990s when he became concerned about the growing economic divide in the country. Neither the students nor the faculty at Washington and Lee had much experience with poverty, he reasoned. So, at a faculty meeting, he threw out the idea of studying the subject. He got a group of staff members together, drew up a proposal, and after a few false starts, got W & L alumnus Tom Shepherd, a Boston businessman, to help fund it.


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