Almost 200 OSU Students Briefly Experienced Life under Intense Poverty
In spite of the rapid pace of technological change and economic development around the world, approximately half the world’s population continues to live on an income of less than US$2 per day. It is this overwhelming statistic that motivates many Oklahoma State University faculty and students to focus their energies on addressing this endemic global issue.
On October 13, as most of the OSU community was preparing for homecoming, almost 200 OSU students participated in a “Struggle for Survival” simulation by getting on their hands and knees and making paper bags to replicate a slum. The event, co-sponsored by the School of Global Studies an d Partnerships, the Wes Watkins Center for International Trade and Development, and the Department of Geography, was led by facilitators from the Hong Kong-based NGO Crossroads Foundation. The simulation is designed to help participants understand the emotional and psychological pressures that accompany poverty.
The two hour experience consists of several elements designed to both bring about a better cognitive understanding of the causes and consequences of poverty, but also to develop greater empathy. According to David Begbie, director of experiential programming for the Crossroads Foundation, the simulation is all about changing perspective and highlighting three main issues — education, empathy and engagement.
First, facilitators orient the participants to the exercise by introducing the extent of global poverty, and introducing the later elements of the simulation. Participants are grouped into a “family” units, and assigned a 6 foot by 6 foot “home,” a square made from construction paper. Each person then contributes to their family by making paper bags out of used newspapers and paste and then selling them to the “shop owners.”
Three simulated weeks follow, in which the families find themselves falling further behind in their rent and other obligations, and feeling the desperation that comes from being unable to provide for their most basic needs. Participants barter their possessions, sacrificing their own goals to meet the immediate needs. The simulation creates moments of emotional vulnerability, where participants begin to understand desperation.
After the simulation, Begbie led the students in a debrief of the event, asking participants to reflect on what they experienced, and challenging them to think about ways that their academic pathway might give them opportunities to address global need.
“Experiences like this help OSU students to better understand the global context in which they will spend their professional lives,” said Dr. Randy Kluver, Dean of the School of Global Studies and Partnerships. “As an institution devoted to confronting issues that challenge the world, we want students to have those experiences while they are still making decisions about their future careers.”
“Many of the students were profoundly influenced by the simulation, which takes them out of their “comfort zone” and situates them, at least for a while, in an economic and social environment completely alien to their life experience,” said Reuel Hanks, Professor of Geography and holder of a Humphreys Chair in International Studies. “Students reported that the experience was “powerful,” “opened their eyes,” and that it “raised their awareness” regarding poverty in developing countries. ‘Struggle for Survival’ allows us to educate beyond the classroom, and motivate students to engage with global problems in an innovative way.”
“The ‘Struggle for Survival’ simulation provided the participating sudents with a glimpse into the complextities that development professionals and policy makers face when addressing structural poverty,” said Anthony Cambas, Director of the Wes Watkins Center for International Trade and Development at OSU. “Adressing these challenges effectively requires a multidisciplinary approach and the students gained valuable insight that may motivate them to work in international development,” added Cambas.