How a wealthy institution promotes poverty studies

The Shepherd Program continues to impact students after more than 20 years


The home of the Shepherd Program is in Mattingly House on Lee Avenue. Photo by Jin Ni, ’22.

Jin Ni

Mattingly House, home of the Shepherd Poverty and Human Capability Studies Program, sits just downhill from a university that is home to some of the wealthiest students in the nation.

Professor Howard Pickett, the director of the program, said the program is not meant to be paternalistic or voyeuristic.

“The program is not now, nor has it ever been, teaching the rich how the other half lives. It is about understanding complex structures,” he said. “There is a difference between growing up in poverty or growing up in wealth, and understanding the complex social, economic, political and ethical dimensions of poverty.”

A 2017 survey by the New York Times found that Washington and Lee ranked third among colleges with more students from the top one percent than the bottom 60 percent of income levels. Washington and Lee has 19.1 percent of its students in the top one percent of the country, which includes households that make over $630 thousand a year.

The university’s endowment is also one of the largest in the country compared to its student population at $1.6 billion. “Washington and Lee is a historically privileged institution,” said Marisa Charley, a professor for the program. “But it’s one of the only institutions in the country that has the resources to do [a poverty studies program] well.”

The Shepherd Program wants to invite students, faculty and the community to join in on a mission to understand and address poverty in ways that respect the dignity of every person.

“People come in here with an openness and desire to engage with some of the wicked problems of the world with immense creativity and sincerity,” Charley said. “I think the problems I encounter with regard to being at a privileged institution is helping to support students who don’t come from that background and finding a balance between making an inclusive classroom and also moving folks intentionally away from harmful rhetoric.”

The program started in 1997 after Founding Director Harlan Beckley, who was then teaching in the religion department, got together with a group of professors to apply for a grant from the Luce Foundation.

The Luce Foundation was founded by Henry R. Luce, the man who started Time Magazine. Today, it supports projects at universities, policy institutes, media organizations and museums to disseminate the most important news, ideas, analyses and criticisms to a mass audience.

“We kicked a bunch of things around and we settled on the idea of poverty, mainly because W&L had a lot of students who grew up in fairly wealthy circumstances who were interested in service but had hardly any exposure to poverty, or knowledge of poverty,” Beckley said.

Beckley didn’t get the grant, but Tom Shepherd, a ‘52 alum and Board of Trustees member, heard about the proposal and decided he wanted to fund it.

“It started bare bones,” Beckley said. “There was no minor, there weren’t many other courses to focus on poverty.”

The program celebrated its 20th anniversary two years ago. It has become a model for similar programs in over two dozen universities across the United States, including Middlebury College and University of Notre Dame.

The poverty studies minor was created in 2010. The minor emphasizes interdisciplinary coursework, community engagement with local agencies, summer internships and a capstone research project that connects students’ concerns about poverty and inequality with their future civic and professional lives.

Students in the poverty studies minor are encouraged to seek summer internships in order to gain hands-on service experience and apply what they are learning in the classroom to the world.

Shiri Yadlin, ‘12, said she ended up with her current job because of one of those internships. Yadlin said she had always felt a strong call to international relations and issues of economic inequality and human rights.

“From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to do the Shepherd minor,” she said.

Yadlin’s first summer internship through the Shepherd Program was at N Street Village, an organization that offers services such as housing, health checkups and a social gathering space for homeless women in Washington D.C.

“In my time there, I interacted with the women a lot. There was a lot of downtime in the day when I would sit and hang out with the women, so I really got a chance to get to know them and build relationships with them and understand their stories,” Yadlin said. “While there were common themes, each woman was unique.”

She recalled some of the women sharing that they had been successful teachers and lawyers at one point in their lives, but then hit a rough patch and never got out of it.

Yadlin said her time at N Street Village transformed how she thought about homelessness, and it narrowed and pivoted her academic and career interests.

The alum now works at Just Homes, an organization working to mobilize and equip churches in the Washington area to help combat homelessness.

“Everything we do here is structured to hit at least one of three points: the empirical, the ethical, the collaborative,” Pickett said. “The community engagement, the summer internships—those are the experiences that cultivate the commitment and the skills to collaborate with communities to try and address those issues.”

Assistant Director Jenny Davidson said the program has impacted too many students to count over the course of 20 years. She herself is an alum who took Shepherd Program classes.

Davidson said that the skills and knowledge fostered by the Shepherd Program are important no matter what career or field an individual goes into or what their income bracket is.

“No matter what career people are pursuing, interacting with people and having a greater understanding of where people come from and what you can do to advocate for people who are disadvantaged is important,” she said.

Alvin Thomas, ‘14, has also seen the benefits of the Shepherd Program. “The Shepherd Program has been critical to my path,” he said. “Before starting at W&L, I knew I wanted to be in the sciences, possibly a research career.”

He graduated with a degree in chemistry engineering and is pursuing a doctorate in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“Being a part [of Shepherd] aligned my passions with a larger life mission,” Thomas said. “Public health was the right combination of scientific inquiry and that mission, and it was ultimately the reason I chose not to go to medical school.”

It is this focus on people, their stories and their importance that is the heart of the program, Pickett said.

“I really want all of us to be dedicated to respecting the dignity of every person, to recognizing that people matter,” Pickett said. “We’re not here merely just to fill out our resume or just to read interesting stuff, but to actually live a life of mutual respect. You gotta keep saying it.”