Immersing Students In Simulations Of Poverty

Poverty doesn’t discriminate, it’s not readily understood and its implications are far-reaching. For nearly 10 years, Carlow University’s nursing faculty have facilitated poverty simulations in the fall and spring to help students better understand this socio-economic issue and be empowered to effect systemic change to combat it.

Carlow University Magazine sat down with nursing faculty member Mary Frances Reidell, MSN, RN, to talk about the goal and impact of these simulations.

Carlow University Magazine: What is a poverty simulation?

Reidell: It’s designed to help participants begin to understand what it might be like to live in a typical family who is living at or below the poverty level and trying to survive from month to month. We’re trying to sensitize the participants to the realities of low-income people.

Carlow University Magazine: Who participates?

Reidell: Students in nursing, counseling, social work and education regularly participate. But it is open to students of any discipline.

Carlow University Magazine: What takes place during a simulation?

Reidell: Participants are assigned to a family and given a particular role, such as father, mother or child. The family must navigate throughout a room to utilize simulated resources and assistance that is available. This can involve acquiring food, finding a job, losing their apartment because they can’t pay the rent, seeking daycare, visiting a bank or consulting with a social service agency. The family has 15-minute intervals to accomplish many tasks. Each interval is designed to represent one month that a low-income family navigates for assistance.

Carlow University Magazine: How does this support Carlow’s mission and values?

Reidell: It’s aligned with the sacredness of creation and opens the students’ eyes to diverse perspectives. This helps them to evaluate how they can reach out in service and create systemic change for people living in poverty. I like them to take it to a deeper level. How can they effect change as professionals and citizens?

Carlow University Magazine: What type of feedback or impact does this have on students?

Reidell: Students typically indicate that it’s an eye-opening experience and their perspectives have changed. They gain more respect for people living in poverty and are less judgmental. Some of them say they would like to serve more. My goal is that they have great empathy and compassion for the clients they serve who are struggling with poverty and that they can visualize specific legislative advocacy that can help change or move folks out of poverty.

Carlow University Magazine: What’s the big picture?

Reidell: After graduation, these students will be working with individuals affected by poverty, and they need to have empathy and awareness. It really opens their eyes, mind and heart to understand the challenges of these individuals whom they’ll be serving. Notably, it’s extremely important to understand that people among us may be silently living in poverty, and we must always be respectful of that. We’re all vulnerable.

Carlow University Magazine: Is participation limited to students?

Reidell: No. Carlow faculty and staff are strongly encouraged to volunteer. It would be optimal if they not only volunteer, but participate. Everybody should have the opportunity to walk in the shoes. ­­­

For more information about volunteering for or participating in a spring or fall poverty simulation, contact Reidell at 412.578.6108 or