Centre students strive for social justice with Shepherd Internship Program
Among its many advantages, a liberal arts education provides students with the critical thinking skills and well-rounded background necessary not only to succeed after college but also to make a difference in the world. Thanks to Centre College’s participation in the Shepherd Internship Program (SIP), an initiative supported by the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty, three Centre students—Laura Hellman ’15, Kelcey Allen ’15 (pictured above) and Morgan Whitehead ’15—have the opportunity this summer to positively impact the lives of people fighting for social justice.
Centre became a member of the Consortium in 2012, joining forces with nearly two dozen other institutions of higher learning to inform students about the causes and remedies of poverty and to prepare them for a lifetime of professional, civic and political activity that will diminish social injustice. To reach this goal, the Consortium integrates rigorous academic study and internships assisting disadvantaged communities.
“The Shepherd Internship Program connects Centre with a wide range of social service and advocacy agencies throughout the country, expanding the possibilities for poverty-focused internships through the Shepherd network,” explains Rick Axtell, professor of religion, college chaplain and Consortium liaison for the College. “This placement process has created exciting new opportunities for students who are seeking this focus.”
A committee of faculty and staff members selected the three students to participate in SIP based on their qualifications and enthusiasm for social change.
“When we interviewed Kelcey, Laura and Morgan, we were impressed with their passion and commitment to both service and systemic change,” says Axtell.
Hellman (pictured right), a sociology major from Louisville, Ky., recognized immediately that SIP perfectly matched her personal interests.
“I knew I wanted to be involved with the Shepherd Internship Program from the minute I read about it,” she explains. “I’m very interested in poverty in society, and I was able to find a specific internship that combined community, youth and education, which just clicked for me.”
Hellman is spending her Shepherd Internship in Austin, Texas, working as an education mobilizer and researcher at Austin Voices for Education and Youth (AVEY). The program aims to bring communities together to work toward improving public education and expanding opportunities for Austin’s youth. One of Hellman’s tasks has been to compile a comprehensive guide of all the public schools, neighborhoods and resources that exist in the northeastern area of Austin. The guide will be a tool for community members to quickly and effectively find the program or agency that is best suited to addressing their specific needs.
One of the challenges Hellman has faced in her internship has been navigating the labyrinth of Texas politics and education. She is confident, however, that her education at Centre has helped her thrive in her position.
“Being flexible, creative, intuitive and curious are all skills that I’ve learned from Centre, and they are important in this field,” she says.“I have also continued to value the importance of learning and thinking critically, as opposed to preparing solely for one career or one path.”
Allen, a religion major from Lexington, Ky., also credits her Centre experiences for preparing her for this internship—particularly her involvement with Centre’s Bonner Program and her previous internship at a family assistance agency in Mérida, Mexico, where she studied abroad last spring.
Allen is now interning in Washington, D.C., at a nonprofit organization called Bread for the City, which seeks to assist D.C. residents in procuring food, clothing, medical care, and legal and social services. As a social services housing intern, Allen works with clients to identify and complete as many housing applications as possible in order to increase their likelihood of obtaining subsidized housing.
Allen says she could have never imagined how difficult it is to find and secure subsidized housing. Her experience has been eye opening to say the least.
“I’ve learned so much about the housing system in D.C. and what the experience of homelessness and poverty is like for D.C. residents,” she says. “Bread for the City operates under the belief that every person is so much more than the biggest mistake they’ve made or the most difficult problem with which they struggle, and no one is undeserving of a home or resources to sustain their livelihood.”
Consequently, Allen’s work at Bread for the City has been a transformative experience in many ways. “While working one-on-one with clients to assist them in overcoming the difficulties they are facing, I simultaneously began to understand the process and how to help clients begin navigating the broken D.C. housing system,” she says.
While Hellman and Allen have focused their efforts on the specific problems of education and housing, Whitehead (pictured right, back row, second from the left) is striving to improve the general wellbeing of underserved residents of Philadelphia, Pa. Her Shepherd Internship is with LIFT, a network of resource centers in six different U.S. cities that takes a holistic approach to lifting people out of poverty for good.
“I chose to intern at LIFT because it addresses the full person and all of their goals, not just one facet of what they need,” explains Whitehead.
Like Allen, she meets with clients daily and helps them improve different areas of their lives.
“Whether their goal is to find housing, employment, healthcare or food, I work with them to research and apply for services to help them meet their needs,” she says.
These kinds of organizations are crucial to getting people the help they need, because, while resources are available, often people are either unaware of them or unable to access them.
Whitehead has also faced challenges in her position, but finds her work uplifting, especially when someone she has worked with achieves success.
“When someone finds a job, or graduates, or gets health insurance, or finds a home—it’s exciting,” she says. “It means that they are one step closer to living the life they want.”
Axtell is convinced that the program will have positive long-term effects. “The uniqueness of the Shepherd program is that, when the students return to campus, they will supplement their summer experience with courses in poverty studies. The experiential foundation from their summer work will make these studies come alive as they deepen their analysis and reflection.”
Such courses in poverty studies include REL 340 Poverty and Homelessness or SOC 120 Social Structure, one of which SIP participants must take before or after they complete their internship.
Mindy Wilson, Centre’s SIP liaison, also believes the impact of these internships on the students’ lives is far-reaching.
“Our interns have been immersed in issues related to poverty and will be able to bring that firsthand experience back to Danville and to Centre,” she says. “We hope that, as a result of their participation in the program, they will be able to recognize issues related to poverty in their chosen career field and will be able to strengthen the communities in which they live.”
To learn more about the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty visit their website.
by Caitlan Cole