Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Rick Axtell was not familiar with inner-city life, but at Centre he teaches a course on Poverty and Homelessness. He traces his growing awareness of poverty to a journey to Bangladesh during the summer between his junior and senior years of college. This trip was five years after Bangladesh's war for independence, and the economy was in the midst of a famine. Seeing people starve to death in the streets shocked him into a new awareness of the reality of poverty he had never experienced. That summer dramatically changed his life, precipitating his later decision to move into a homeless shelter for two years while attending seminary. During this time he gained a passion for people suffering from poverty and homelessness, which inspired the development of a course designed to connect students with a hidden American reality.
For the past seventeen years, Rick Axtell has been teaching the Poverty and Homelessness course to introduce his students to a world they may otherwise never know. In pairs, students in the class get an introduction to homelessness in Louisville by spending a night in a shelter. “I drop them off one block away and they walk to the shelter and check-in like everyone else; they eat the meals, use the bathrooms, sleep on the beds, and engage in conversations with the people.” The students experience the reality of homelessness for the first time, spending time talking to drug addicts, single moms, people on welfare, or the mentally ill, all over a meal. Their eyes are opened to a level of suffering they probably didn’t know existed and a group of people they might have feared before the experience.
Axtell says overcoming fear can be one of the biggest obstacles for students; the other is setting aside class privilege to fully embrace this experience. What students experience in this course is a profound awakening to a world outside their own privilege. They are immersed in a world where having a good haircut or keys jingling in your pocket indicates wealth and status; where people are still people, regardless of how much they own. From the debriefing Axtell conducts with the students after their stay in the shelter, he finds that many of the students are shocked at how similar their hopes and desires are to those of the people they talked with in the shelter. When you set aside class and privilege, people are just people. “This is one of the things that happens when people have an experience that makes questions become their own questions.”
As a result of this preliminary experience, the conversations in class are much deeper; the analysis that follows is much richer. Students who have seen first-hand the faces of poverty and homelessness don’t have to be motivated to learn more, they seek it out. These transformational experiences not only provide students with applied educational illustrations, but retention levels are higher because many students see the practical relevance of their theoretical studies, often adopting a new set of beliefs, standards, and ambitions because of this class.
Axtell talks about how many of his students have gone on from this class to work in social work, ministry, or other fields of service because of their experiences. He believes this class is a transformative experience for his students, one that they will not only never forget, but will never allow them to be the same again. Once you see the devastation of lives in your own cities, it’s hard not to develop a compassion that bleeds into everything you do- at least that’s what Axtell hopes with his students.
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