Nursing students look into faces of poverty
By Janie Magruder
GCU News Bureau
In the span of 90 minutes on Wednesday, Otto Olson waited in line for food stamps, tried to cash two checks (one of them stolen), pawned some of his belongings, didn’t notice as his twin sisters were tossed into jail several times and was so late picking up his little brother from day care that the tot was sent to juvenile hall.
Otto was among the fictional characters that 85 nursing students at Grand Canyon University portrayed during an exercise putting them face-to-face with a chronic problem they’re likely to encounter as nurses: poverty.
It was the final such simulation held this summer as part of a new community health course in GCU’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions. All told, 250 students in the BSN program on GCU’s main campus and its sites at Sun City Banner Boswell, A.T. Still University, Scottsdale Healthcare, Tucson and Albuquerque participated in the four sessions in which 15 minutes of real time represented one week of simulated time and four 15-minute segments spanned one faux month.
The program, designed by the Missouri Action Coalition, is intended to cultivate empathy for and raise awareness of those struggling to survive an impoverished existence, said Dr. Roni Collazo, an associate professor and director of the BSN program at Banner Boswell. It’s also intended to stir a fire within students to change situations and policies that create or exacerbate the trickle-down effects of economic distress.
“How can you help these families? How can you set up relationships with them so they are free to come to you in need? What can you do to change the face of poverty?” Collazo asked students, encouraging them to consider everything from volunteering to advocacy to voting.
The role of Otto, a 21-year-old college student whose father is incarcerated (and mother nowhere mentioned), was given to student Gillian Aitken. Otto was responsible for 13-year-old twins Olivia and Opal, roles played by students Jess Lincoln and Lisa Durst, respectively, and Oscar, 3, a small doll.
As Collazo blew a whistle every 15 minutes to signal the start or end of a week, Aitken, Lincoln, Durst and the other students crisscrossed the crowded CAS classroom. Around the room’s perimeter volunteers offered services ranging from shelter, job leads and public school to banking, utilities and food.
The students waited in lines five people deep at “Big Dave’s Pawn Shop,” where “Davita” (adjunct faculty Mary Lou Rangel) also sold guns. Sheriff Jude Belmonte (also adjunct faculty) was happy to incarcerate lawbreakers in her jail.
The scene was intentionally chaotic, panicky, frustrating and sad.
Otto/Aitken was late returning to the day care center for Oscar because of transportation issues and was told the boy had been sent to juvenile hall. The twins filled out boring worksheets in their congested classroom and were unable to catch the attention of their overwhelmed teacher. They received transportation vouchers in exchange for promising adjunct faculty Janet Fleming they would stay in school, if only to get free lunches each day. Then they chose to ditch school and instead prowled about, stealing paychecks and vouchers and deceiving the pawn shop owner.
At one point, Otto/Aitken threw up her hands in frustration, saying, “They can go to school or go to jail.”
Other students portrayed elderly, chronically ill relatives saddled with the guilt of not being able to contribute to their family’s well-being, or children who returned home one day to an eviction notice.
Nursing student Kuan-Wen Wang portrayed the “illegal activities person,” who robbed, broke into homes and committed other crimes. “It definitely is sad when people are living in poverty, because they can be taken advantage of,” he said.
After the simulation, Collazo, the volunteers and students talked about their observations. Rangel, the pawn shop owner, said desperation was a common theme at her table. Students bargained for anything they could get, in one case accepting five $1 bus passes for a television set.
Durst gained a new sense of empathy for children in poverty. “Especially with juveniles, sometimes you look at them and think, ‘Really? Don’t be a jerk,’” she said. “The reality is they are put in situations where they feel they should be doing something, anything, to help out, and they don’t have the tools or the supervision. They’re just doing the best they can.”
Lincoln was surprised at how easily her moral compass shifted during the exercise. “It showed me how desperate times call for desperate measures,” she said. “I would never steal from people, but here, as a 13-year-old with no supervision and no possibility of working, there was nothing else I could do.”
Aitken felt frustrated that social services were unavailable on evenings and weekends, when she might have had more time to access them.
Collazo encouraged the students to educate themselves about the candidates running in the Nov. 4 election and to choose officials whose platforms are aligned with their values. She gave them homework – to create a list of resources available to disadvantaged people in the areas where they soon will be working as nurses.
“We want you to think about reversing poverty in your little corner of the world,” Collazo said. “You may not be able to end hunger, but can you continue to serve for a couple hours a week at a food bank or a shelter after you graduate or provide education to someone?”
Contact Janie Magruder at 639.8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.