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Students gain empathy with campus poverty simulation

Campus Life Nov 11, 2021
Three masked people sit in chairs in a circle
Three masked people sit in chairs in a circle

KOKOMO, Ind. – It’s been a hard month for the Aber family.

Mom Ann missed work for a doctor’s appointment, so her paycheck was reduced. Teen daughter Alice had a baby without health insurance, racking up additional bills. Son Andy, 8, needs money for school supplies the family can’t afford. Dad Al Sr. just had to bail 10-year-old Al Jr. out of jail, after the boy stole money trying to help his family make ends meet.

“We started with a game plan. We thought we were going to get everything done, and then we had some things thrown as us,” said Al Sr., also known as Indiana University Kokomo student Grace Roberts.

“A day late and a dollar short is what I’m running into,” Roberts said. “Just when we think we have everything figured out; something happens.”

Roberts was one of 50 students in the School of Nursing and Allied Health Professions (SNAHP) who participated in a poverty simulation exercise, getting a real glimpse into the struggles their future patients may face in day-to-day life. It was offered as part of the Kokomo Experience and You, or KEY, which provides students with experiential learning programs.

Students were placed in family groups and given a “home” (groupings of chairs) in the town of Realville, in the Student Activities and Events Center. Each 15-minute simulated week, for one month, family members had to take their children to school, pay their mortgage or rent, go to work, buy groceries, apply for assistance or loans if needed, and perform other tasks low-income people face.

Cheryl Moore-Beyioku, lecturer in special education, co-led the simulation with Stephanie Pratt, clinical assistant professor of nursing.

She said the simulation gives the students, who are future medical professionals,  an awareness of life situations people with few resources face, preparing them to advocate for their patients.

“They’re feeling these very real feelings of being under-resourced,” she said. “Hopefully they will take these feelings and experiences they are going through now, and be better able to support their future patients.”

Developing empathy is critical, Moore-Beyioku added

“Families can be working as hard as they can, and still not become financially stable to the point where they are able to survive,” she said. “Because they’ve experienced it, they can be ready to assist, instead of ready to blame the family for their situation. They know things can happen that are out of the family’s control.”

That was the case with the Abers family, who, in addition to Roberts as Al Sr., included Kaitlyn Sanders as Ann, Nakia Brigham as Alice, Ben Walker as Al Jr., and Kathryn Peck as Andy.

Peck, from Peru, said playing the role of a young child, she felt the stress of her family’s situation.

“This is a pretty real indication of what it’s like in America. It’s very broken,” she said. “It’s hard for a family to break the cycle of poverty. As a child, watching your parents do what they have to do to make ends meet is debilitating.”

Sanders, Peru, said it was eye-opening to try to make ends meet.

“You gain empathy from putting yourself in someone’s shoes,” she said. “As nurses, we are our patient’s advocate, whatever that entails. We help with their physical ailments, and if they need help, we can provide them with resources for when they are not in our care.”

The simulation included nursing and radiologic sciences students this semester, and will include education students in the spring, said Pratt, who said it’s valuable for them to experience what others face every day.

“It changes their perspective,” she said. “Many of them cannot fathom what it is like to live in poverty. Everything is a struggle, whether it’s a ride, or a babysitter, or a school delay. This allows them to see the layers of struggle that keep them in poverty. It’s not one struggle, it’s multiple struggles.”

Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.

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