By Kevin Tankersley
When Baylor senior Palmer Brigham went looking for a summer internship, she figured she would be working in a professional position having something to do with policy-making, maybe in Washington, D.C., or in a state capitol somewhere.
Instead, the professional writing major in Baylor’s Department of English found herself as the first point of contact at Family Scholar House in Louisville, Kentucky, working with homeless individuals and people fleeing domestic abuse. She was placed at Family Scholar House through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty, a nonprofit internship program that offers about 100 students from 24 colleges and universities around the country summer opportunities within impoverished communities. The interns work in a variety of fields –– including medicine, law, housing and nutrition. There’s a competitive application process to get into the Shepherd Scholars program, and six students from Baylor took part in the summer of 2017.
“We are deluged with students every semester who come to our office wanting a bigger experience,” said Dr. Kirsten Escobar, who is a Scholarship, Programs, Awards, Research, Knowledge (SPARK) advisor for the College of Arts & Sciences. “These students have an incredible amount of energy. They have a desire to let excellence in the classroom start to inhabit lived experience, and not be theoretical anymore –– not be the textbook. They want to live something, and they’re trying to figure out how to do that.”
Baylor’s participation in the Shepherd Scholars program began several years ago, led by the efforts of Rosemary Townsend, who has since retired from the Office of Student Life. Dr. Gaynor Yancey, a professor of social work and Master Teacher at Baylor as well as the director of the Baylor Interdisciplinary Poverty Initiative, partners with the SPARK office in overseeing the Shepherd program at the university.
“Rosemary Townsend was the primary mover and shaker of all this,” Yancey said. “She brought this opportunity to Baylor.”
Shepherd Scholars begin their internships with an opening conference during which they meet their intern roommates and discuss a series of pre-assigned articles.
“A big takeaway from that was that we learned about cultural humility,” Brigham said. “A lot of people talk about cultural competence, understanding other people’s cultures. But humility takes that another step and makes you take your experiences out of the equation.”
The students also discussed budgeting at the conference, as they were encouraged to live frugally to help them relate to the populations they would be serving during their eight-week internships.
“They are challenged to live on $14 a day,” Escobar said, “because $14 a day is not going to go very far. While all of their expenses are paid, the stipend is not such where they are coming back from summer with a bunch of cash in their pockets. But that’s part of the point.”
Baylor’s Shepherd participants said their internship experiences solidified the career goals they already had in mind, but one said her focus shifted a bit.
“I honestly wasn’t interested in criminal defense at all when I started this process,” said Cassie Story, a senior sociology major from Kerrville who worked in the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C. “I was interested in civil and human rights law –– the tamer side, if you want to call it that. But once I started hearing about all of the issues the United States has with our prison system and how the economy drives it, and how so many people are thrown into jail and their lives are ruined for something that other people might not have been thrown into jail for, that really struck me.”
For Sanjana Nayak, a senior biology major and pre-med student, the Shepherd program helped her define the career trajectory she had already adopted. She spent her internship working in the Healthy Living Initiative division of the Food Bank of South Jersey in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey. There, she taught “Cooking Matters” classes and gave lessons on topics such as how to shop for healthy foods and how to read a nutrition label.
“When I came to Baylor I was pre-med, but I didn’t really have a direction. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career,” Nayak said. “I got interested in seeing if there’s an intersection between health and nutrition. I wanted to do more community engagement and get more involved in that, and that’s why I wanted to do the Shepherd program. In the future as a physician, I want to be more informed about that, so when I’m talking to patients who maybe have hypertension or diabetes, I’ll be able to talk about preventative measures, too, not just pills.”
Bryce Stockslager, a senior psychology major from Akron, Ohio, worked with families facing poverty during his Shepherd internship. He was in Baltimore, Maryland, at the PACT Therapeutic Nursery, which is located inside a homeless shelter. Stockslager hopes to become a clinical psychologist, and said he would like to work with patients similar to those he encountered in Baltimore.
“I had always loved working with children before, but this really clued me in to the importance of early head start education,” he said. “And once children reach the public education system, those institutions may not have the resources to be sensitive to their needs.”
Other Baylor students who took part in the Shepherd program during the summer of 2017 included Michelle Sutanto, a senior University Scholar from Frederick, Maryland, and David Marchese, a junior history major from McAllen. Marchese and other Baylor participants said the fact that the university fully funds the Shepherd internships offered them a chance they could not have pursued otherwise.
“That opportunity was just a blessing from God,” said Marchese, who spent his time in London, Kentucky, at the Department of Public Advocacy working with the public defender’s office. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford any of that, especially coming from a single-parent household. This opportunity was just indispensable to my future career goals.”
The money needed to transport and house the Baylor students while they are doing their internships comes from several sources on campus as well as from the Shepherd Consortium itself.
“Some money comes from the Provost’s Office, and Dr. Lee Nordt, the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, invests a great deal of funding support for this initiative,” said Elizabeth Vardaman, associate dean for engaged learning in the College. Vardaman and Escobar oversee the selection process for Baylor’s interns who will serve in the Shepherd program.
“Dean Thomas Hibbs and the Baylor Honors College provide other funds,” Vardaman said. “The actual, on-the-ground experience of those eight weeks is tied very closely to the monies we send from Baylor. We are exceedingly proud of the incredible group of students who participated in 2017.”