The Columns

My W&L: Ellen Wiencek ’15

— by on September 5th, 2016

Ellen Wiencek '15

“The relationships I have made and strengthened while volunteering over the course of my time in Lexington are more important to me than I could have imagined.”

Over the past four years, I found my niche in the Shepherd Program, where I am a work study student, a member of the Campus Kitchen Leadership Team, and chair of community engagement for Nabors Service League. After participating in the Volunteer Venture program to Washington, D.C., before my freshman year, I knew that I wanted to be part of the interdisciplinary program aimed to educate students about the increasing poverty and inequality that exists in the United States today.

As a mathematics and economics major, I clearly like numbers. In any analysis, I tend to default to empirical arguments, using data as my main method of support. When I took Professor Pickett’s Introductory Poverty course my freshman year, the greatest initial challenge for me was the quantity of anecdotal and ethical evidence we used in our class discussions and analysis of domestic poverty. Over the course of the semester, I aimed to meet this challenge, and I learned how to write papers that had strong statistical support, but also told a story to make those data points resonate with the reader.

Four years later, I’ve completed my poverty capstone course on the structural isolation of the urban poor, using arguments from economics, political philosophy and sociology, thus completing my poverty minor. In true liberal arts fashion, the poverty studies curriculum has rounded out my analytical skills, helping me to understand the people behind the data that I would have otherwise cast aside.

At the same time as my introductory course, I was enrolled in a service-learning course, requiring a volunteer commitment of four hours and a written reflection each week. My placement was at the Campus Kitchen, where I delivered dinner and visited with the residents of the Natural Bridge Manor, an assisted living facility. To enhance the anecdotal readings of the introductory class, this service-learning course allowed me to have real names and faces to learn from, and it further helped me understand the complexities of poverty and its potential solutions. Forming these personal relationships solidified my interest in pursuing the poverty minor, and I have been delivering to the Manor ever since.

As a senior, reflecting on my four years of volunteering, I have actually begun to think of it less as service, and more as part of my daily routine. The relationships I have made and strengthened while volunteering over the course of my time in Lexington are more important to me than I could have imagined when I first began visiting the Manor. It is easy to get stuck in the campus bubble, so I am glad to have found a way to connect with the local community through the Shepherd Program.