I would say that “shocked and appalled” would be good words to describe how I felt
when Professor Shaw explained our assignment that first morning in Washington, D.C.
There had, of course, been hints. In retrospect, his instructions to wear our work
clothes for some unspecified “volunteering,” the curiously blank schedule for the
afternoon and evening, and his urging us to eat a big breakfast all seemed suspicious.
But on this first day of the trip, we were nave and trusting.
The task seemed horribly daunting as he explained it to us. We were to spend the day
in an unknown city with nothing but one dollar, a poor-quality map of the city, and
a long list of tasks to accomplish. We were to find food, clothing, shelter, and health
care, write resumes, find jobs, travel to locations spread miles apart all over the
city—all with no resources but our own ingenuity and our strong, youthful legs. Of
course, is this not what a homeless person must face and overcome day after day, without
the promise that it will be over in a mere 12 hours?
My two partners and I spent hours traversing what seemed like never-ending circles
around the city in search of soup kitchens, shelters, public clinics, and more. It
was frustrating to find, again and again, that the place we were looking for was closed
or had moved or didn’t offer the services that we needed.
Yet, at the same time, it was inspiring how people who had so little were going out
of their way to help us, by giving directions, a little insider advice, or just some
well-intentioned warnings to stick to better areas of the city. We spent the day blundering
through some of the worst neighborhoods in D.C., as that is inevitably where most
of the services were located, and never once did we receive so much as an unkind word
By the end of the day, I was feeling horrible. It is amazing how quickly lack of food
can drag down a person’s optimism. By late evening, I was sprawled out on a bench
near the Capitol, feeling sorry for myself, exhausted from the miles that we had walked,
and listening to my stomach growl with hunger. I have to admit that at one point I
was near crying from the incredible bleakness that a life like this must actually
hold for those who live it every day, and I wouldn’t consider myself to be a weak
person. It gave me a new respect for those who persevere through hardship long after
I would have given up.
I feel like I went on this trip with a different perspective than many of the students
and therefore the lessons that I took away were different. Rather than going as a
political-science major wanting to learn about welfare-reform law, I was a sociology
student wanting to affirm my decision to go into social work as a career. This trip
illustrated for me how policy decisions made up on Capitol Hill affect the everyday
lives of so many people in a profound way.
This experience also showed me how many problems there still are in our society and
made me feel as if I am someone who can and should try to improve the world, at least
in some small way. This trip taught me a lot about myself, my personal beliefs and
the way that I want to spend the rest of my life. I don’t think that it would be an
exaggeration to describe my May Term experience as life altering. How many people
can honestly say that?
Liz Petersen ’03 is a sociology/women’s studies double major from Downers Grove, Ill.
To read about this May Term experience from IWU Professor Greg Shaw's point of view,