Class Questions
A groundbreaking poverty studies program at Washington and Lee University has some of the country's most affluent students pondering why they have -- and others have not

By Brigid Schulte
Sunday, August 6, 2006

PRETTY, SLEEPY LEXINGTON, VA., IS A TOWN OF CROOKED STREETS, quaint coffee shops and charming old wood-and-brick houses. Nestled side by side among its magnolia trees and azalea bushes are two historic universities, Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. The Lylburn Downing Community Center is just a few blocks away but in a different part of Lexington -- what's called the black part of town. This area also has narrow streets and rockers sitting on front porches. But it's across an unseen border -- one that students from nearby Washington and Lee, which is nearly 90 percent white, have little occasion to cross.

On an April day, though, seven young women from Washington and Lee arrived at the center bearing food shortly after 3 p.m. They wore short jean skirts and flowing, flowery blouses. Painted toenails glistened under jeweled thong sandals. Up the front entrance stairs they went, carrying industrial-grade stainless steel containers filled with orange slices and roast beef. Their destination was an after-school program for low-income kids. Its director, Tammy Dunn, a short black woman of 41 with an enormous smile, stood on the front stoop, cellphone in hand, waving them in. She stopped the last young woman, the one wearing bluejeans and a gray T-shirt that said, "Teach. Reach. Feed. Lead."

"My buddy!" Dunn said. "My darling!"

Ingrid Easton, a senior, broke into a smile and put her arm around Dunn. She asked about the older woman's family. The two had met the previous year, when Ingrid had volunteered at the center. They'd been friends since, meeting for lunch when they could, catching up on the phone. At first, Dunn assumed Ingrid was just like her, someone who had struggled through poverty and come out on the upside. It took several lengthy conversations to learn that Ingrid is instead a child of privilege: a doctor's daughter who attended exclusive, nearly all-white private schools in Charlotte. Dunn marveled that the girl showed no white guilt, none of the discomfort of the haves around the have-nots. Ingrid, she says, is simply a natural. "It takes a gifted person to be able to sit wherever she goes," says Dunn, who refers to herself as Ingrid's "mother away from home."

Inside the community center swirled the chaos of 15 children cooped up on a nice day. One girl zoomed around the room on purple Rollerblades. A crowd gathered around three computers that booped and blapped as the kids shot down aliens. Others sat at a table, giggling at cellphone messages. One girl sauntered into the maelstrom and slammed down a giant, 32-ounce bottle of cola from the nearby convenience store. She turned to the college women. "What kinda snack you got?" she demanded. "Ice cream?"

The college students, who by now had all put on gray T-shirts like Ingrid's, stood in a pack at the edge of the room, fingering their hairnets and smiling the self-conscious smiles of well-meaning outsiders.

Ingrid left them there and went to sit down next to two little girls. She asked their names. "That's such a pretty name," she said to each one. She asked about school, what they learned and what they liked. Then she asked what they'd had to eat that day.

"Nothing, really," one shrugged.

"I stayed at a motel with my cousin last night," the other said. But before Ingrid could ask anything more, the two ran off.

Ingrid began to organize the college volunteers and the food they'd brought into an assembly line. They made roast beef sandwiches and handed out the orange slices. Then, unflappable, chewing her ever-present wad of gum, she led the kids in a raucous game of Nutrition Jeopardy, making a point to call on the quiet and withdrawn kids -- "Destiny?" "Sierra?" "Colby?" -- even as the loud ones like LaShawn yelled at the others, "It's my turn, fool!"

When the game was over, Ingrid had taught the kids the difference between good fats and bad -- "Sunflower seeds is good fat? I love those!" one boy shouted -- and that there is no such thing as bad protein. She told them she'd be back the next day with another healthy snack and that they would play outside, maybe a game of basketball.

Ingrid has been on family trips to Europe, to the U.S. Open tennis tournament, on ski vacations out West. Growing up, she never gave much thought to the poor, or even saw many people who were. "Downtown Charlotte was just not a place you would go," she says. In her Episcopal church, she'd heard the priest talk about giving alms to the poor, she'd read how Jesus said, "The poor will always be with you." She absorbed the vague notion that if you worked hard, you would have what you need for a good life. So if you were poor, she thought, perhaps you just hadn't worked hard enough.

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.

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 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.

"I knew this was going to happen once we started the Shepherd Program," Beckley says with a laugh. "If you start raising these issues with students, you realize one of them is going to be bright enough to figure out W & L may be just as big an offender as anyone else."

One evening in April, Quiana and one of her good friends, Dane Boston, dressed up to go to Lee Chapel. They wanted to hear author Barbara Ehrenreich speak about her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. To write it, Ehrenreich had spent several months living off what she made working low-wage jobs ranging from waitress and maid to Wal-Mart employee.

Students are expected to dress for chapel: suits and ties for boys, dresses or slacks for girls. From the outside, Dane appeared to be every inch Quiana's opposite. White and blond, nattily dressed in a blue sports coat, yellow tie and khakis, he looked as if he'd just sailed in from the yacht club.

Ehrenreich spoke to a full house, then opened the floor to questions. Dane's hand shot up. Ehrenreich had criticized the way the government measured poverty, saying it missed too many struggling people. This reminded Dane of an argument he had read in class, one made by Harvard economist Amartya Sen, that what we think of as poverty should be measured in broader terms than just the financial.

He wanted to hear Ehrenreich's views on Sen's progressive theory. "The lack of money is not the only thing that makes people poor. There are questions of human capability," he said. "What are some things we should look at, like functional literacy, to measure poverty?"

"Stop thinking of it as something wrong with the person or there's something wrong with the choices they made," Ehrenreich snapped. "You have no idea how easily people can get derailed. I know that undermines the nice Protestant work ethic virtues if you can be blown off course so easily."

Dane sat down, crestfallen. Later, on his way out, he said quietly, "I don't think she understood what I was asking."

He comes from a small town in Florida. His father is a computer programmer. His mother is a teacher. Though Dane does like to dress up, he's hardly rich. He's attending W & L on an academic scholarship.

Dane spent last summer as a Shepherd intern, living and working at N Street Village in Northwest Washington. There, he cooked, cleaned, dispensed medication and organized activities for the women with mental issues who live at the shelter full time. The biggest surprise for him was also the most profound: discovering his shared humanity with the poor. "I was walking down the street in D.C. seeing the sights on one of my days off. I saw a homeless lady with a shopping cart. And it hit me: You know her name. She comes to the place you live," he says. "It's a link that most of America doesn't have."

In the journal he kept of his experience, Dane, with painstaking honesty, captured his hard-won transformation. "My patience with the ladies grows dangerously thin at times," he wrote on June 21, 2005. "I feel guilty for the judgmental attitude I have adopted, and yet whenever I am with them it is difficult to suppress."

At times, he wrote that he was frustrated by the women's childish behavior, their thanklessness or their inability to work toward their goals. Over the next month, however, he began to hang out in the craft room, where the women like to go to sew or knit or otherwise work with their hands. He listened to their life stories. He asked questions. When they requested a spelling bee, he made it a weekly event. "Slowly, I came to realize that the ladies do not deserve my service because they are elaborately grateful. They do not deserve it because they are unspeakably miserable. They do not deserve it at all. Rather I am bound to serve them because of the innate dignity of their humanity," he concluded in his journal.

He became especially close to Miss Tafeline Jones, a tart-tongued 75-year-old from Grenada who has lived at the shelter since brain surgery left her impaired years ago. On Sundays, before Dane went to church, Miss Tafeline always made him come out and model what he was wearing. She teased him one morning after he scrubbed the kitchen. "Oh Lord, I were afraid to go inside of it to cook. I could see myself," Miss Tafeline recalls. This past March, when one of his ladies died, he made the drive from Lexington for the funeral, sitting behind Miss Tafeline in the church and then walking her home. To this day, she calls him her "boyfriend."

INGRID'S SUMMER SHEPHERD INTERNSHIP almost didn't happen. In the spring of her junior year, caught between the competing visions of her future, she applied for both a poverty internship and a highly sought-after investment banking internship with Goldman Sachs in New York.

For the poverty internship, she contemplated going to a poor area of Boston to work at a community development center. Too dangerous, her parents said. So she set her sights on D.C., where her older sister lives, and the D.C. Central Kitchen.

She liked that the nonprofit didn't fit the stereotype of a soup kitchen, distributing handouts from afar with a touch of pity. Instead, the cooking is done by culinary trainees, all recovering addicts, ex-cons and homeless people who are ready to get off the streets. They run the place, telling volunteers what to do, and, after graduating from the kitchen and going on to earn a food handler's certificate from the city, are ready for full-time employment. It made so much sense to Ingrid: Feed the hungry, use available resources, make human connections, and teach skills that help the poor get themselves out of poverty.

She was all set. Then the offer came from Goldman Sachs. Her parents were ecstatic. It would be the perfect start to a bright future, they told her. But Ingrid was paralyzed. She explored compromises, tried to figure out a way to do both. "You could tell she really wanted to do the Shepherd internship," says Stacy McLoughlin-Taylor, one of her advisers at W & L. "She just had to figure that out."

After weeks of stomach-churning indecision, she decided to turn down Goldman Sachs. "There's either honoring your parents or honoring yourself," she says. "If it weren't hard, it wouldn't be a decision." When she picked up the phone to break the news to her parents, there was a long silence on the other end. "All you could hear was the crackling on the phone."

Poverty 101 had gotten into her bones. The previous summer, after she took the first class, she'd started thinking that maybe her mission in life was to start a nonprofit. She'd discovered a book at Barnes & Noble that she kept coming back to read. It was D.C. Central Kitchen founder Robert Egger's Begging for Change, a sort of wise-guy plea for nonprofits to run more like businesses -- efficiently and with accountability -- and to remember that human transformation, not feel-good handouts, should be their mission. "I kept going in and reading it. Then I bought it," she said. "The message was, we don't need to be springing up new nonprofits but looking at nonprofits we have and working toward making them better."

In the book, Egger wrote, "If you're ever in the nation's capital, feel free to visit us." A few weeks after she finished the book, Ingrid found herself walking the area around Union Station, thinking she might find the kitchen. It's housed on 2nd Street NW, in the basement of the Federal City Shelter, one of the largest homeless shelters in the country. She remembers turning around several times, nearly losing her nerve and giving up before finding the dirt alleyway, past the dumpster and the bands of homeless men, that led to the kitchen's eggplant purple entrance. It was Egger's birthday, and he proclaimed Ingrid, a young person seeking him out because of his book, the best present ever. Before she left, he asked her to consider bringing a Campus Kitchen Project to Washington and Lee. She left, she says, thinking she could take over the world.

Egger remembers the day clearly. "This is so what I wanted to happen when I wrote the book," he says. "I wanted young people to say, 'Yeah, I think this way.' It's almost like they want to find a new way to serve their community. They don't want to just do charity anymore."

So for her internship last summer, Ingrid lived with Dane and other Shepherd interns at N Street Village, where their discovery that a 10-pack of ramen noodles went for $1 was cause for celebration. She split her time working at D.C. Central Kitchen and the Campus Kitchen Project's national office. At the Central Kitchen, she donned a hairnet and rubber gloves and, as is the practice, took orders for chopping, cooking and cleaning from the culinary trainees -- one a recovering alcoholic, another who'd spent 15 years in prison.

She expected stories of hardship. She thought she'd hear self-pity. Instead, on the first few days of work, feeling tired and thinking of calling in sick, it was her own self-pity that struck her. She was humbled to learn that the director of the homeless shelter hadn't missed a day in eight years.

One day, Ingrid was helping the trainees practice for job interviews. Some were so filled with self-doubt and gripped by fear that they simply froze up. That night, Ingrid wrote in her journal that, "I like to pretend that I am being selfless and kindhearted by being here and 'working so others can have a better life.' I am learning how blessed I am and how ridiculous it is to think anything I am doing is all that special . . . I have had people telling me since I was born that I would be successful. What is hard is growing up with only negative influences, voices and feedback and finding confidence in yourself."

Egger, who affectionately calls her Ingy, said he was impressed by her big heart. But over the summer, in the questions she asked, in how she pondered ways to end poverty and hunger, he also saw a rigorous mind at work. "I see in Ingrid a real evolving soul," he said. "She's on a journey. Her destination is a better world."

THE JOURNEY THAT BEGINS IN POVERTY 101 has taken people surprising places. Charles Allen grew up in a wealthy, white suburb of Birmingham. He never knew about his city's civil rights past or its persistent poverty, he says. Coming into W & L in 1995, he was a biology major on a beeline to medical school. Then, in the spring of his sophomore year, he took a religion class from Beckley commonly known as "Malcolm and Martin," which covered Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. At the end of the class, Beckley suggested that Allen take Poverty 101, which was starting that fall. "That one moment changed everything for me. That's what set me on this path," Allen says now.

He spent the summer after Poverty 101 interning at a free clinic in South Boston. He saw with his own eyes how health care -- or the lack of it -- exacerbates poverty: the preventable asthma attack that keeps a child out of school, the untreated illness that keeps a worker away from the job.

Although he'd taken a stack of medical school applications with him on the internship, he ended up doing an about-face. Instead of medical school, he went on to get a master's in public health, eventually going to work for the D.C. Primary Care Association, a nonprofit that advocates for better health care on behalf of the city's poor. His family was a little taken aback at first; he could have made big money as a doctor. But, says Allen: "I can do without that. I get a whole lot of personal satisfaction from helping people, knowing I'm making a difference. The trade-off, to me, is pretty insignificant."

Last year, Allen hosted two Shepherd interns. They spent their summer researching and writing legislation that aimed to attract more young doctors into underserved Northeast and Southeast Washington by having the D.C. government forgive a portion of their student loans. The D.C. Council passed the legislation, providing $300,000 to fund five to 10 doctors in low-income areas. Allen, meanwhile, has quit his job to manage the campaign of a progressive D.C. Council candidate.

There are other stories of lives altered. Mary Carol Mazza came into Poverty 101 planning to go on to law school. But after the program, she ended up working as a research specialist on poverty programs for the state of Texas. This fall she'll go to Harvard University to study the economics of poverty. "Before Poverty 101, you thought you knew what poverty was," she said. "You don't." Greg Pleasants, a typical frat boy when he entered Poverty 101, interned in Mexico after his sophomore year and taught kindergarten there after he graduated. He's now getting a joint law and master's of social work degree in Los Angeles.

The Shepherd Program is even getting to the venerable Washington and Lee. Since its classes began in 1997, the curriculum has expanded from two offerings to nearly 20 throughout the entire school. Now, there are English classes to study the theme of poverty in literature, economics classes that dissect wage inequality or the economics of race and class, and psychology courses to examine the effects of poverty on children. The university is now also much more actively recruiting minority students and expanding financial aid to bring in more students from low-income families.

"We're seeing a sea transformation," says Arthur Goldsmith, Ingrid's economics professor, who teaches one of the courses. "The Shepherd Program is influencing what we teach, who we hire. A lot of things have been changing."

Sometimes Beckley himself is surprised by the program's influence. Last spring, he encouraged senior Matthew Null, who was graduating with a degree in English and a poverty studies certificate, to apply to become a Rhodes scholar. Null shrugged. "What would I do in Oxford?" Instead, he will go to an impoverished school in the Mississippi Delta for Teach for America. "I didn't want to do something for status," Null explains. "We're an incredibly divided country. We have amazingly large gaps between rich and poor, and wages that are incredibly low. I feel this is a darkly exciting time for our nation, and I want to be here."

The program has attracted diverse supporters, including Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a W & L alum. He has secured grants for the program and included a provision in the Higher Education Act that would create a poverty studies consortium of 10 universities nationally, along the Shepherd Program model.

David Bradley, director of the National Community Action Foundation, an advocacy organization for low-income programs, has been working on anti-poverty issues since President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. He's seen activists burn out, federal funds and programs shut down, interest wane, poverty rates fall -- and then rise again, as is currently happening. The Shepherd Program, he says, has given him real hope. Its students are "exactly what this national debate needs," he says. "A lot of the poverty warriors that I know of are getting rather long in the tooth and are doing a lot of things the same way that they've done them for years and years and years. Here's a fresh new approach that's desperately needed."

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Ingrid's trial of the Campus Kitchen Project this spring was a hit. She got 55 student volunteers, some faculty members and even the provost to pile into an industrial kitchen, mix up spaghetti sauce, de-seed grapes and make sandwiches for the needy. By the end of the week, they'd prepared and delivered 320 meals and gotten to know some of the invisible poor in and around Lexington.

Everyone who knows her says Ingrid glowed.

It's something her older sister, Brooke, has found infectious. Along with their brother, Blair, all three siblings are going to Honduras this summer to work at a home for disadvantaged girls. Blair remembers sitting in a bookstore with Ingrid, talking over coffee a few months ago. As usual, he says, he obsessed about whether to leave his safe job at a genetics lab to pursue his art. Ingrid talked about homeless people, people who don't have enough to eat. "When I see people like that . . . ," her brother recalls her saying, before she stopped and teared up. Blair changed the subject, not wanting to embarrass her. "We don't talk about it much; it's a very private thing for her," Blair says. But "Ingrid's always had an acute sense of other people's misery."

Ingrid's parents know that. At home, they call her "The Preacher" for the thoughtful prayers she says before meals, and the inspirational sayings she posts around the house. ("Think of Every Day as a Gift" was one.) But parents want to see their children self-sufficient and happy, and Ingrid's parents worry that her desire to help the poor is at odds with their desire to see her live well.

"We have been mostly supportive of her," Gretchen Easton explains. "It's hard with a child like this. We have concerns because we see how the world is operating. We'd like to see her develop more skills, something she can earn a living doing, so she'll have something to fall back on. We go back and forth and back and forth all the time. She needs to get out in the real world and pay her own expenses. She has no idea. She's had a job -- teaching tennis one summer. The time has come for Ingrid to get a dose of reality."

Graduation was only a few weeks away, and Ingrid, after wavering for months, had finally made a few decisions. She wouldn't, after all, be coming back next year to run the Campus Kitchen. She figured she needed to get out of town for a while -- Lexington can be a small place. So she decided to move to San Francisco in the fall with a friend. She's still not sure what she'll do once she gets there. But, in some ways, whether her path leads her to a corporation, a nonprofit or some other employer, it doesn't matter. She's beginning to figure out that, for her, a rich life means being around different people, working to help others. As she wrestles with her future, trying to be a good daughter and wanting to lead a purposeful life, she's been thinking lately of a poster she saw during her summer internship and noted in her journal. Perhaps it will guide her choices. "Don't try to save the world," it said, "but do what makes you come alive."

Brigid Schulte is a reporter for the Post's Metro section. She and Harlan Beckley will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon at

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