What’s it like to be poor? If you haven’t lived it personally, you can’t really know. But a group of 80 Huntingdon College students were given a brief glimpse in an exercise delivered by the Alabama Association of School Boards last April—and it opened their eyes to the problems faced by millions of Americans.

The participants, who are teacher education majors and students in Huntingdon’s Presidential Fellows Program and Hobbs Honors Program, took part in a Poverty Simulation program on April 8. “The goal of the simulation is to impress upon emerging leaders and teachers—who will serve a wide variety of socioeconomic populations—some of the challenges faced by those coping with lower socioeconomic circumstances,” said Dr. Kristin Zimbelman, an assistant professor of teacher education at Huntingdon College, a Sullivan Foundation partner school.

For the exercise, faculty and volunteers simulated utilities, businesses, law enforcement, education, and employment and social services. Participants were given task cards to be completed within the budgets they were provided.

Zimbelman had undergone the simulation previously. “Having taught [public school] in four districts—two in Alabama and two in the Chicago area—I felt I had an awareness of socioeconomic challenges, but this demonstration reinforced that there are so many factors that impact a family’s circumstances that are outside one’s control,” she said. “The simulation made me hyper-aware—so much so that I thought it would be an invaluable exercise for our upcoming educators and student and community leaders.”

The simulation model was created by the Missouri Community Action Agency (MCAA) as a way of raising awareness of the challenges faced by the working poor. Susan Roundtree Salter, director of leadership development for the Alabama Association of School Boards, and Ava Cranmore, assistant director, are approved trainers and administered the simulation.

“There are a number of agencies, churches and school systems in Alabama and all over the United States that use this simulation,” Salter said. “It’s a great way to give educators and workers a very different perspective of things they thought they knew.”

According to the MCAA, participants in the program take on the identity of a person with a family who lives in poverty. A large room serves as a simulated community, and each participant’s chair is a neighbor’s home. Lining the perimeter of the room are tables that act as services that everyone needs, such as banks, schools and grocery stores.

As in real life, participants have to find transportation to work or school. They need to put food on the table. Some might suffer from a chronic illness. Everyone is faced with the stresses and challenges a person in poverty deals with every day.

The simulation is not a game—it’s an intensive exercise, based on real-life experiences of MCAA clients, that’s aimed at helping the participants see poverty through the eyes of a person who’s actually living it and perhaps unable to escape on their own.

Following the simulation, participants discussed the experience.

“I think this was such an important exercise—to remember that everybody is going through different things and that the child can’t do anything about it,” said Natalie Harris, a member of the Class of 2024 who is majoring in elementary teacher education with collaborative special education. “The parents may want to do more and try to do more, but they’re stuck. We have to have a way to not call these students out if they don’t have the resources to do certain things.”

“[The simulation] teaches us how fortunate we are and not to take anything for granted,” said Dr. Michele Martin, an assistant professor of teacher education at Huntingdon. “It makes us open our eyes to what others are going through, especially in understanding why some students don’t bring their own snacks or don’t participate in some activities.”

Prospective teacher education graduates remarked that they wanted to be prepared with lists of social services available to help in certain circumstances and planned to have snacks, school supplies and other resources available when they are put in charge of their own classrooms.

Huntingdon’s Department of Teacher Education and Presidential Fellows Program plan to offer the simulation again in the future.

This article has been edited and expanded from the original version appearing on the Huntingdon College website.

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