Poverty-Mester: The Course I’d Teach to College Kids From Affluent Backgrounds

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By Darren Johnson

Campus News

You may wonder how new courses get proposed at your college. Often, it comes from a professor – he or she may devise it, work with a department chair, go before a committee or two, get administrative buy in and, many months – sometimes years later, if at all – there is a new course in the college catalog.

I’ve made the bulk of my living in administration in recent years, though I also teach and do student newspapers, as well.

One thing I’d like to do, if there were time, would be a semester devoted to living in poverty. Read on to learn my rationale.

A few years ago, a professor wanted my help in getting his idea off the ground. I believe he was going to call it City Semester, where he took a bunch of students into Manhattan for a period of time, and they would be exposed to the various aspects of the culture there and get credit. We were at a suburban college, and many suburban kids don’t really know much about the City, really, so this sounded like a great idea. Though I don’t think the program ever happened. I lost touch with the professor – don’t even remember his name – and google gives me nothing, though I see that other colleges in other cities do similar programs. Maybe the guy wasn’t all that original after all.

I’ve never considered myself all that original, either; more so, I am good at innovating the mundane. This isn’t the first student newspaper in the world, but it’s the first to hit many, many campuses. I’ve made some big web sites, too. And I did not invent semester-away programs.

But that City Semester idea has bumped around in my head for a while. That, and I have often worried about some students. Many students seem to have much better cars than I have. This has always been the case, but I am older now and have a decent job. It seems totally preposterous that an 18 year old should have a car worth double/triple my Hyundai Sonata, don’t you think?

When I was in college, there was a definite mix of haves and have nots in the dorms. I worked at fast food places and delivering papers and had an old Impala with no hubcaps for transportation. Meanwhile, other students had everything paid for by parents – including their credit cards. They’d get a check in the mailbox each week for fun money (my roommate would smoke his up).

I worry about my own daughter, 14, who has all the latest iThings. She doesn’t have the life I had at her age, where I was out delivering papers in the cold and heat. I paid for my Huffy and a transistor radio that played The Cars and other great bands as I tossed papers from house to house. I’d go home to no one. It was all pretty lonely, really. (One time, on my route, I was violently struck by a car. My bike was mangled. I limped home, and no one really cared. I had to go back to delivering and collecting on foot.)

I think my story has more universal truth to it than the story of the kid driving a new Lexus to class. So I propose a semester where students live in real poverty. Maybe it could be called Poverty Semester, Poormester, Meister Mester, whatever. I am not here to brand.

And instead of Manhattan, a group of students would be forced to live in a flat in some boarded out part of Brooklyn or the Bronx. No credit cards, no checks from home. They’d have to work in a local shelter or soup kitchen for minimum wage, minus rent. They’d only have the clothes on their backs. Their phone would be a payphone up the hall. A staticky tube TV with rabbit ears would provide a handful of broadcast channels. I’d secretly work with the landlord to make sure the power, heat and hot water went off regularly. I’d buy a rat or two and put them in the cupboards for effect. I’d hire some character actors to play thugs – we’d have to take judo lessons at the local Y to feel more self-assured walking down the street.

See, this is the reality that many Americans live with – maybe your parents had such an upbringing. It made them who they are. And, really, I think gaining this toughness would make one a better business person, understanding a broader customer base and the real value of a dollar. In today’s world, we all need to understand how to be tough business people, it seems. Even artists need to know Excel.

But Poverty Semester could also include a course on the Literature of the Poor – get ready for mondo Dickens – and, of course, a Sociology of the Poor class. Maybe an art appreciation course, studying street art. Small business entrepreneurship. Most academic disciplines could insert themselves into this program, making it worthy of 12-15 credits, for sure.

Yeah, I know. In this era where helicopter parents help college kids with their homework and even call professors directly, one could imagine their concerns – “Say something goes wrong?!”

I guess they would be assuming that their child would be mugged or something.

Sure, before embarking on the course, students should be given a dose of common sense – don’t be jamming out on headphones hooked up to the latest iPhone on the subway at 2 a.m., for example – but colleges already have travel abroad programs to a host of Third World countries that are likely far riskier.

By the end of Poverty Semester, students will be wiser to the world and much more grounded in reality, appreciative of the struggles that perhaps their parents and/or grandparents had to make. Besides, the dozen or so students who do Poverty Semester will be helping the community where they are assigned.

Go to a VFW and the old timers talk about the months of their lives where they were in the military, even though that may have been 50 or so years ago. You ever hear an older professor wax poetic about his time in the Peace Corps in the 1960s? Heck, I still talk about the couple of years I played lacrosse at some tiny college.

These were “defining moments” where we all got to prove ourselves, and the stories last with us to our graves. That’s the kind of impact Poverty Semester would have on the upper-middle-class suburban kids who go to the typical private college on Long Island, Upstate or in New England. Somehow, I can’t see these colleges going for it – and that’s too bad, as the least a college can do for a student in four years is present him or her with a “defining moment.”

 Along with writing for newspapers, Darren Johnson has been working and teaching at a variety of colleges since 1997.

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