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Class Questions

Beckley began teaching the program's survey course, "Poverty: An Interdisciplinary Introduction," in 1997. The experience of taking it has nudged some conservative students to the left and some liberal students to the right. Others -- Beckley estimates that one-fifth of the 1,700-member undergraduate student body now takes the class -- have been profoundly moved. Ingrid was one of these, and for her the class was a revelation on a couple of levels. Most obviously, it made her rethink her assumptions. "Before the class, I'd always thought of poverty as something in other countries," she says. "We are blessed with such abundance in America. I didn't realize how many people are left out."

In the class, she learned that the United States is among the poorest of developed nations by some measures, including infant mortality. She read conservative thinkers such as Lawrence M. Mead, a politics professor at New York University, who argued that the poor need to stop demanding handouts, and progressives such as Rebecca M. Blank, dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, who wrote that real inroads in fighting poverty had already been achieved. Beckley challenged the students to confront their own stereotypes. Polls have shown that the prevailing view in America is that people are poor because of some character flaw such as laziness, promiscuity, addiction or moral failing, he taught. Was that true? Or were the flaws in the system: such as prejudice and economic or educational inequality? Could it be both?

Along with Ingrid's new perception of poverty came a desire to act. "I didn't understand that so many people are limited by the opportunities they're given, how we're nowhere near having an even playing field in this society," she says. "I think we are all called to do something about it."

More importantly for a practical young woman who had flirted with declaring an English major before, with her parents' prompting, settling for economics, the course taught her that helping the poor could be more than a Saturday morning charity run. "It was an awakening to the fact that this is something you can pursue academically. This is a serious field," she says. "People can make their life's work out of alleviating poverty."

But with this newfound fire came an agonizing ambivalence. How does wanting to help the poor translate into finding a job? Especially when your parents aren't convinced that it's a viable career choice. She thought about teaching. Then advertising. Then social work. Then counseling. She began trolling Web sites such as Idealist.org. Her parents suggested investment banking or medical school, for stability. If she wanted to help, how about a prestigious place like the World Bank? they asked. How about a master's degree?

They watched their daughter's quandary as if from afar. They didn't talk much about their views of who is poor and why. "Sometimes, she may not like what we have to say," says her mother, Gretchen Easton. "I remember being her age. I was reading people like [Black Panther] Eldridge Cleaver about poverty, getting passionate about helping people and saying, 'We have to do this, this, this and this.' But I had no money then. I was not part of the 'we.' I was not contributing to the pot."

IF THE POVERTY 101 CLASS opens the W & L students' minds, the required internship rattles their worlds.

Quiana McKenzie, one of the few African Americans at Washington and Lee, was raised by a single mother on the rough South Side of Chicago, in an area known as the "Wild Hundreds." Her crumbling public school had no heat in winter and no air conditioning in summer. She kept an eye out for gang-bangers at the bus stop and grieved when her mother's best friend was shot. Her two best friends from childhood have since dropped out of school and become single mothers. Despite the odds against her, Quiana succeeded academically, scoring well on rigorous Advanced Placement tests.

Going in to the poverty program, Quiana thought it wouldn't teach her anything new. Then last summer, for her internship, she found herself in Marvell, Ark., where the train tracks literally divided the town between black and white, rich and poor, working and not.

Her job was to survey poor blacks in the unincorporated part of town to see if they wanted the city to run sewer lines to their homes. She confronted a fatalistic hopelessness she'd never seen before. "Sort of like, 'It's always been this way, what do you want us to do about it?' " she says. One afternoon, leaving one broken-down home and walking to the next, following the drainage ditches that ran with open sewage, she sat down and cried.

"How can we live in a country like this?" she remembers thinking. That night, she called her mother and said, "Now, I've seen real poverty."

Quiana is designing her own major -- something she calls American political and social welfare. She plans to run for office; she wants to influence public policy. In the meantime, she's working on a campaign led by another Shepherd Program student to bring a living wage to Washington and Lee. The administration recently agreed that no university employee should have to spend more than 10 percent of his or her family income toward health insurance.


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