Understanding Socioeconomic Difference: Studies in Poverty and Human Capability

Although the United Nations Development Programme consistently ranks the United States among the most impoverished of all developed countries, U.S. undergraduate institutions offer little opportunity for a sustained study of poverty informed by first-hand engagement (United Nations 2008). At many elite schools, students have limited opportunity to encounter poverty in person, and socioeconomically disadvantaged people are grossly underrepresented in undergraduate enrollments. Many institutions have rightly invested in enrolling more economically disadvantaged students. Few, however, have fully incorporated the study of poverty or interaction with impoverished communities into their educational programming. Prompted by these gaps and by the lack of socioeconomic diversity at our own institution, in 1997, a group of faculty, students, and administrators at Washington and Lee University initiated a new program for the interdisciplinary study of poverty and human capability.

Program Scope and Structure

The Shepherd Program—named for an alumnus benefactor who has also supported efforts to increase racial diversity at Washington and Lee—has grown significantly during its first decade. Beginning with one faculty member and a half-time administrative assistant, the program now has four and a half full-time staffers who administer its multiple cocurricular components. At least twenty percent of undergraduate students and a handful of law students enroll in coursework linked to the program, and students can choose from more than thirty discipline-based courses sponsored by eleven departments. The scope of the program’s cocurricular activities is even larger, with nearly half of the undergraduate student body participating.

Students typically begin the program with an interdisciplinary course on poverty and human capability, which 15 to 20 percent of students complete at some point prior to their senior year. These students are eligible to apply for an eight-week summer domestic or international internship, in which thirty or more undergraduates (primarily rising juniors and seniors) participate each summer. Most students who complete the internship choose to concentrate (or minor) in poverty studies. These students enroll in four discipline-based courses focused on poverty, as well as a capstone interdisciplinary seminar. The capstone course culminates with a research paper emerging from cocurricular experiences and linked to the major field of study. This thesis project helps prepare students for future civic involvement.

The summer internship is structured as a non-credit-bearing course for which all students receive expense reimbursement and students on financial aid receive $1,300 stipends. Interns work in a range of settings (from rural Arkansas to urban New York) in positions relevant to their long-term professional interests. A student planning a career in health care might intern at a public health facility in Helena, Arkansas, or at the addiction clinic at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital. These internships expose students to many forms of diversity as they work with people from vastly different cultural, racial, and economic backgrounds and alongside interns from Berea, Morehouse, Spelman, and Middlebury colleges.

Most Shepherd Program students supplement their course work with additional cocurricular options. Entering first-year students may participate in a preorientation service trip led by upper-level students who have completed the introductory course. Alumni chapters in major metropolitan areas organize and host “alternative break” service-learning projects in February and April. Other cocurricular options include community-based research and work with the Campus Kitchen chapter (www.campuskitchens.org). Even after graduating, students can continue their Shepherd Program education through fellowships that support work with agencies serving disadvantaged persons.

Program Outcomes

The Shepherd Program accomplishes two primary goals. First, it informs a broad cross-section of students about issues pertaining to poverty. Second, it facilitates a deeper understanding of poverty, both international and domestic, to enrich the academic majors of 5 to 7 percent of each graduating class. We intend for the sustained study of poverty to shape and even transform the professional and civic lives of graduates, whether they become businesspersons, educators, lawyers, healthcare workers, policymakers, community organizers, or entrepreneurs.

Accomplishing the Shepherd Program’s goals requires a sustained and integrated curricular and cocurricular approach. Shepherd Program graduates attest that the most profound impact of their education occurs as they encounter people different from themselves and become passionate about staying in touch with their new friends. But service learning is effective only when integrated into a new cognitive understanding. Students are often astonished to learn that more than twelve million children in the United States live in “food insecure” households, where inadequate nutrition can influence cognitive development (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2007). Discoveries like this motivate and inform their cocurricular work.

Although tailored to Washington and Lee’s special circumstances and mission, the principal purposes and core components of the Shepherd Program are adaptable to most institutions. Through this sustained and integrated approach, students can come to better understand the challenges poverty presents in the United States and in the developing world.

Growing Initiatives

We are now collaborating with David Bradley, executive director of the National Community Action Foundation, to expand the Shepherd program and help remedy the conspicuous absence of sustained poverty studies in higher education. David has been working without remuneration to secure partial funding for an eleven-school consortium via congressional authorization for a demonstration project in higher education. Assuming congressional action, the consortium will allow ten more schools to incorporate the study of poverty and human capability in their undergraduate and legal education programming. In the meantime, several foundations have provided funding for smaller similar programs at four additional institutions.

These programs will not automatically augment socioeconomic diversity on our campuses. But they will afford students from all socioeconomic backgrounds an opportunity to work with others across educational, social, and economic strata in order to diminish poverty. They thus remove the barriers that separate our students from disadvantaged people both on and off our campuses while simultaneously making our institutions more inviting for economically disadvantaged students. Combined with financial aid programs and admissions policies that expand opportunities for all, initiatives like the Shepherd program can help increase socioeconomic diversity on campuses by engaging with the community beyond their boundaries.

For more information, including descriptions of related courses, visit shepherdapps.wlu.edu.


United Nations Development Programme. 2008. Capacity development: Empowering people and institutions. www.undp.org

United States Department of Agriculture. 2007. Food security in the United States: Conditions and trends. www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/FoodSecurity/trends

Harlan Beckley is the director of the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability at Washington and Lee University.

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