UNCG Campus Weekly

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Putting Yourself in Another’s Shoes

033011Feature_PovertySocial Work graduate student Brandon Williams explained that that was what the March 18 Poverty Simulation 2011 was illustrating. He was one of the volunteers, role playing. The sign at his table read “Community Center.”

Fellow grad student Megan Englebretson explained that some of the nearly 100 students, mostly undergraduates, who came to their table throughout the afternoon found frustration. As they all played their roles, they wanted more than what those at each of the booths could provide, or perhaps they’d been misinformed. Many participants found it eye-opening. Frustrations and barriers were a theme of the day, as revealed when students formed groups at the end of the day to talk through their role-playing experiences.

“I just want the people to have the right information,” one student said.

The day was the brainchild of instructor Jack Register (Social Work), who led a committee organizing it. “We in HES [Human Environmental Sciences] train students to become more aware of the issues and impact of poverty on vulnerable populations,” he explained. Including the frustrations.

The event, titled “Poverty Simulation 2011: Making Cents of Being Poor,” took place on a warm, sunny Friday. The students, many from Social Work but others from throughout the School of HES and beyond, gathered in Fleming Gym in the morning to be briefed on the purpose and logistics of the afternoon simulation. One topic was “What poverty looks like in our world today in 2011.”

Poverty simulations, Register explains, are a way of ‘walking,’ at least for a few minutes, in the shoes of another person or group. Each participant would be given an identity. They would attempt to get their family’s needs met, and in the course of the afternoon would visit several “agencies” to help do that.

“You may have to gain access to transportation, recertify for Medicare/Medicaid, gain some intervention for medical reasons, or a host of other issues,” he instructed the students, about the role-playing. “If you choose to break the law during the simulation, you will be arrested.”

While the day was eye-opening for some — many participants had had experience working with volunteering or working with populations at risk for poverty, such as immigrants or the mentally ill.

“A family member may get out of poverty, but what about the family?” one student observed during the debriefing at the end of the day.

By 2012, about sixty percent of the population will be elderly, Williams said, as he moderated one of the debriefing sessions. Social Work chair Dr. Elizabeth Lindsey offered an occasional question or thought to further the conversation. But the students offered their own experiences with populations in need.

“Let’s talk about kids,” Williams said. And the participants had plenty to add.

“We talked about immigrants,” he said. “What about the mentally ill?” The views flew back and forth, some students drawing on their volunteer experiences.

“Did there seem to be good communication between agencies?” Williams asked.

One student observed that transportation – not understanding how to use the public transportation or no access to it or a car — can be a barrier.

Lindsey noted that during the simulation, she observed a “45-year-old veteran” walking around rather aimlessly, not knowing where to turn. One student observed seeing a homeless veteran recently along a roadway, and speculated on what barriers that individual had faced, and what could be done.

Students piped up with frustrations they faced, in playing their roles. “The frustration in hearing you’re denied a service, but not told why,” one said.

“Seeing [a place] closed for the day or for lunch,” another said.

Language barriers for immigrants, Alexia Mesa offered. An intern with Guilford Child Development, she has experience working with Congolese immigrants. She notes that UNCG is the most diverse ethnically of the historically white UNC schools, and she has learned from students of a wide variety of ethnicities at UNCG.

This warm, spring day was another day of broadening students’ perspectives.

By Mike Harris
Photograph by Mike Harris