Champlain’s Community Awareness Pilot Project Immerses Students in Impoverished Scenarios

NEWPORT, Vt. — Champlain College psychology, social work and legal studies students put themselves in the shoes of residents of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont in one of three Community Awareness Project (CAP) Trips. Groups of three students, led by a human services professional from the area, explored downtown Newport to find and apply for local services that were essential when handling mock scenarios.

These students, most in their first semester of college, could never have imagined a more overwhelming experience. Many explained that it would have an impact on their future career choices. Human services are not only needed in urban areas, but in profoundly rural areas, too. Psychology professor Kimberly Quinn-Smith of Montgomery Center, VT, pictured a cultural immersion project outside of Burlington that would spread awareness of the various types of diversity, including socioeconomic, race, ethnicity, education level, and more. She was familiar with services in the Northeast Kingdom, which welcomed Champlain College with open arms.

In the Northeast Kingdom, 47 percent of families are on food stamps, and 85 percent of students in the school system are part of the free lunch program. The Champlain students learned that sometimes school lunch is the only meal these children have all day. "Meeting the people who help the local families was inspiring," said first-year psychology major Heather Kenzie. "The entire experience was more tangible than textbook scenarios." Kenzie personally thanked every human services professional throughout the day. From the trips, students took away awareness, respect and empathy.

On the various Fridays, students left Champlain's campus at 8 a.m. to travel two hours to Newport, VT in the Northeast Kingdom. Quinn-Smith and Legal Studies Program Director Eric Friedman led their students to a panel of human services professionals. The panel included representatives from the local department of family services, Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA), Northeast Kingdom Learning Services (NEKLS), housing trust, and corrections that serve the Orleans, Essex and Caledonia counties. Emily Keith, Director of Community Building and Organization at Gilman Housing Trust, shared with students, "All of our jobs are about respect." Many of the students will be entering similar fields after graduation. "In human services, your job is to look at a person and see the whole person," she continued, "and everyone needs support to move forward."

Quinn-Smith explained that this immersion experience is important because "Ignorance leads to discrimination, and discrimination leads to damage." Both Quinn-Smith and Friedman said that most of their students come from middle- to upper-middle-class families. In the three trips, only a couple of students said that their families had ever taken advantage of human services and financial assistance programs, formerly known as welfare. "This is night and day compared to what our students are exposed to," she continued.

After the panel, students joined their CAP leaders for lunch before setting off on foot to find the local resources they needed. "I was a 19 year old high school drop-out with a one year-old child and another on the way," said first-year legal studies major Stephen Harris of his scenario. "I had no money, no support from my family, no shelter, was trying to escape an abusive relationship, and had only the clothes on my back." Students in Harris' group had to apply for food stamps, visit the food shelf, collect a voucher from the Parent Child Center for free clothes from the thrift store, seek out a women's center, arrange for transportation assistance, apply to take GED courses, and find a job. "We learned to pitch our scenario at each location and see what the departments offer that could help us," he established. They also kept Maslow's hierarchy of needs in mind to take advantage of other services offered at each department - warmth, water, a lavatory, and shelter.

"It is good to see the students have experiential learning," said one of the group's leaders, Suzanne Pellitier, the Adult Diploma Assessor at NEKLS, "they are in the shoes of clients they will serve someday." Many students were overwhelmed by what they saw, the processes they had to go through, and being open to the elements. "Yeah, so it's raining outside. Do you think these people have their own car? These people most likely are taking off days of work and losing money while the offices are open to try and apply for these services," she helped students fathom.

After three CAP trips, roughly 45 students experienced this immersion to understand socioeconomic diversity in the Northeast Kingdom. "Newport is an economically diverse community of about 7,000 people. You'd be amazed to see the houses on the Lake compared to what you're seeing now," said another leader, Carla Watson, Special Projects Coordinator at NEKLS. "This diversity is important though; everyone comes together to help."

After a full day in the Northeast Kingdom, students returned to Champlain at 5 p.m. and continued to discuss the experience in the classroom. Although there are no more CAP Trips planned for the semester, students will continue to have relationships with organizations in the Northeast Kingdom. Junior social work major Miranda Salisbury is opening a prom store for high school students who cannot afford to buy the typical prom dress, tuxedo, shoes or other formalwear accessories. "This is my dream, applying my love of fashion to helping people," she said. Salisbury will be collecting lightly used prom dresses and accessories for her prom store throughout winter.

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Founded in 1878, Champlain College is a small, not-for-profit, private college in Burlington, Vermont, with additional campuses in Montreal, Canada, and Dublin, Ireland. Champlain offers a traditional undergraduate experience from its beautiful campus overlooking Lake Champlain and over 90 residential undergraduate and online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and certificates. Champlain's distinctive career-driven approach to higher education embodies the notion that true learning occurs when information and experience come together to create knowledge. Champlain College is included in the Princeton Review's The Best 384 Colleges: 2019 Edition. For the fourth year in a row, Champlain was named a "Most Innovative School" in the North by U.S. News & World Report's 2019 "America's Best Colleges,” and a “Best Value School” and is ranked in the top 100 “Regional Universities of the North” and in the top 25 for “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” Champlain is also featured in the Fiske Guide to Colleges for 2019 as one of the "best and most interesting schools" in the United States, Canada and Great Britain and is a 2019 College of Distinction. For more information, visit