From the inside out: Ball State students study poverty

Topics: Immersive Learning, Teachers College

March 29, 2007

Eva Zygmunt-Fillwalk
The average Ball State student knows little about poverty. Many of them come from middle-class families and don't ever realize that they are attending school in the second poorest city in Indiana, according to the most recent census.

Ten students studying at the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry, however, are seeing the devastating impact of poverty firsthand. Rather than attending traditional classes, they've spent an entire semester listening to and learning from individuals who have had experience with economic disadvantage. Exams and term papers have been replaced by in-depth conversations, preparing meals and opportunities to build relationships with a community working to eliminate poverty in Delaware County.

The students are participants in "Voice and Vision: Poverty from the Inside Out," a seminar being led by Eva Zygmunt-Fillwalk, assistant professor of elementary education. Working with Indiana Public Radio and Muncie's TEAMwork for Quality Living, the students are developing a radio series featuring the voices of individuals and families living at the low end of the economic spectrum.

Throughout the semester, they have immersed themselves in the subject, researching and studying the people who are often overlooked by society. They are learning about the challenges and barriers that contribute to poverty, as well as the strength and fortitude of a community rallying to affect change, Zygmunt-Fillwalk says.

On one recent "plunge" the students visited the cold and blustery streets of Chicago to examine the issues from a large, urban perspective. They interacted with people who were awaiting treatment in the emergency room at Cook County Hospital, people who were missing entire days of work to see a doctor.  In their backyard of Muncie, they rode buses — some with broken heaters and doors that didn't close — that serve the city's poorer communities.

"These experiences were emotionally draining," Zygmunt-Fillwalk says. "All of the students came back to campus off-balance, wondering what to do with this new perspective."

For example, one student from northern Indiana thought she knew Chicago pretty well. Her view, however, was forever changed after seeing a different side of the City of Broad Shoulders for the first time. "It was absolutely frigid yet we walked past blocks and blocks of people sleeping outside, homeless," says Jennifer Strempka, from Crown Point.

The students returned realizing that even in the world's richest industrialized country, all is not well. "It really pushed all of us out of our comfort zones and changed how we see the world," Strempka adds.

That change in outlook will be captured in a series of radio programs, which are designed to raise awareness and solicit increased community commitment toward eliminating poverty — one individual, one family at a time. "This semester will make me re-evaluate what I think about so many things, and I love that," says student Adam Clark. "I don't want my life to continue in the same direction without being affected by the things I experience and people I meet. I want the people's stories that I have the privilege of telling to affect the programs' listeners in the same way."

The air dates have yet to be announced, but they will be previewed during a special showcase at 6 p.m. April 26 at the Cornerstone Center for the Arts, 520 E. Main St., Muncie. The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. For reservations, call (765) 287-0117.

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