Hometown: Abilene, Texas
Major: Global Politics
Why did you apply for this particular internship? I am very interested in going into international development, and I knew that working with a non-profit that served refugees would be an experience unparalleled by other opportunities. By being able to serve refugees once they have immigrated to America, I hope to have a better understanding of the struggles they face in their home countries.
How did your work apply to your studies at W&L? In studying international development and global politics I will be able to draw from my first-hand experience with this population and hopefully provide a perspective to textbook issues that cannot be given in the classroom. I have been able to connect the experiences of refugees with policies and country-based issues that we have studied in class.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your Shepherd Alliance experience? I wasn't sure what to expect in going into a non-profit exactly, but probably the vast array of clients that Caritas serves and the immense flexibility required of employees when trying to stabilize clients. Reading about poverty issues cannot prepare you for the convoluted and nuanced issues these people face and the case-by-case solutions that employees must find.
Post-Graduation Plans: I'm not entirely sure, but probably to go to graduate school to pursue a career in international development or Global policy and possibly join the Peace Corps.Favorite W&L Memory: Watching the sunrise on Easter morning from the mountains.
Favorite Class: Global Politics
Favorite W&L Events: Mock Convention & Fancy Dress
Favorite Lexington Landmark: Panther Falls
Why did you choose W&L? I knew I wanted to go to a small, liberal arts school, and the more I looked into W&L, the more I saw that it was a good fit. I was drawn to its small classes, internship opportunities, Spring Term abroad, extracurricular opportunities, and the gorgeous mountains that surround it.
Why did you choose your major? I've always been interested in world issues and Global Politics was my first class at W&L that I was eager to explore further and try to "figure out."
What professor has inspired you? Professor Dickovick
Advice for prospective or first-year students? Take advantage of all the opportunities W&L has to offer; there is a niche here for everyone and it is well worth it to explore until you find it.
Each morning at 6:00 my alarm goes off and I drag myself out of bed to experience Austin, Texas, when it isn't busy or loud and the only people outside are construction workers and people standing in line to receive the first breakfast tacos. On my morning run I clear my head from whatever client situation I dealt with yesterday at Caritas and prepare myself for the day ahead. At any other time, Austin would be filled with backed up traffic, street vendors and food trailers, but now it is quiet. Once it's time to head out to work downtown at about 7:45, I get on my bike and begin my descent into the now-bustling city with businessmen and Starbucks cups surrounding me. On my bike ride I start in a residential area, make my way through business offices and elite hotels, and I know I am nearing Caritas when I escape the hustle and see the churches with lines out the door and the homeless shelter across the street from my work. The well-to-do Austinite and the homeless man that greats me with, "smile, pretty lady" spend their days only two blocks away but may never cross paths.
To enter into the Caritas building I have to go through two sets of doors locked by key-cards, and once I make my way upstairs to the administrative section, I'm in an entirely different world. Here lies the finance department, the part of a non-profit you don't think much about, but must exist at the heart of it all. Downstairs I find the cubicles with overworked caseworkers, some departments with employees with 10 files, some with 100.
Two days a week I work in administration, keeping myself distanced from clients and only associating names with ID numbers and check requests. There are no faces in sight. I have to admit that part of me looks forward to these days; they are predictable and routine, I am not stressed and can take longer lunch breaks. There is also instant gratification in this, as I approve check requests for clients and help prepare monthly reports for the city. I talk with program managers and case managers because the department I work in is collaborating with twelve agencies in Austin. Yesterday I met with the managers from each agency and watched as their put-together appearances broke down as they realized that the other agencies were having the same problems they were. There is no training or degree that prepares you to handle the unheard-of situations that clients come in with.
The other three days of my week are much less predictable; I often have days where Microsoft Outlook shows no appointments on my calendar, but I quickly become busy for eight and a half hours. The day usually starts with staffing with the housing stability team. The six case managers, program manager, housing locator and I sit around a table and discuss a potential client based on a screening form. After calling the intake line for weeks, this lucky person got through and their crisis has been condensed to a few sheets of paper. The employees try to unveil and give life to the crisis on paper, tossing around possible solutions to a problem that we all know will take a year of case management. I'll admit that during my first few weeks, I found the stories of clients interesting, but I didn't fully understand the complexity of these pieces of paper. While I originally thought this made it simple for case managers to decipher the client's issues, I now see that it only masks the months or years of crisis these people have been experiencing.
The rest of the day could be filled with meetings with clients, going on home visits, helping pick up a resettlement client from the airport, going to meetings to tell other agencies about Caritas or answering the intake line. I was naïve to think that working with clients would be black and white--I soon discovered the nuanced issues I would be confronted with; something the few pieces of paper that I saw at staffing cleverly disguised.
"Chuck" is not from this country; he is a refugee who has been in this country less than a year. Because my career interests lie in international development, I was eager to help resettlement clients. Chuck speaks little to no English and I must hire an interpreter for the session. Luckily, Caritas has interpreters for about 15 different languages, and are prepared for just about anything. The Cuban dialect of Spanish isn't too hard to tackle, but I'm absolutely worthless. Chuck's pride overtakes him, something I hadn't quite expected. With his now full-time job and small apartment, he doesn't see why he needs to meet with me. He is self-sufficient and doesn't need to be told by a 19-year-old how to manage his money. His work permit arrived late from his home country so he was unable to work for the first few months he was here. Regardless of skill level, language barriers and a lack of degree transfer prohibit refugees from working professional jobs. I've seen pediatricians and Ph.D. recipients applying to Wal-Mart and hotels; no job a refugee receives will allow them to pay all of their current bills and put money towards debt. After listening to Chuck and explaining that he has succeeded in the United States, that I am only here to put the months that he could not work behind him, his overworked and lined face takes on a large, toothy grin. I don't want to correct his way of life; I want to applaud him for his success. After my first meeting with Chuck he quickly got me his documents and has had a huge smile every time he's come into the office to see me. He says "thank you" and I say "gracias" in our attempts to relate to each other.
I've also met with "Larry," a veteran who struggles to make ends meet due to his daughter's medical emergency. Larry has done everything right; he spends virtually nothing and puts what money he has leftover in his grandchild's savings account. He is having a crisis because he told his daughter he would be on the streets before she ever would be. He could have remained stable; he could have never needed help. When she became sick, he paid the hospital bills and steadily fell behind on his own bills. He is not angry with her--or anyone, for that matter--but is kind-hearted and always thanks me for calling him, no matter what my news is--even if it is not to his benefit. Today our phone conversation involved me saying we could help him more if he needed, and his reply was that we have done all that was asked and he wants to come up with the rest of the money.
After my client appointments are done for the day, I can't help but overhear other meetings in surrounding cubicles. Whatever the situation may be, something is being revealed that was not on those few white sheets of paper. One colleague is off to examine a bed-bug infestation, another to discover the root of her client's identity theft with the Social Security office. One employee tries to sort out the mental illness of gambling and realizes that while it seems like bad budgeting, it is a serious mental issue that our clients do not have the funds to solve. By the end of my day, I'm sometimes wishing I spent more time in administration, where lunch breaks are long and my days are more predictable.
By about 5:00 I hop back on my bike and feel the unbearable humidity and 110 degree heat that embodies Austin in the summer months. I pass back by the shelters and churches where people now crowd under their awnings for shade. As I weave my way through rush hour traffic, I see the same businessmen with their afternoon iced coffees or happy hour drinks, and wonder how two downtown blocks can have such severely different lifestyles. By the time I get back to our co-op only 15 minutes later, I'm drenched in sweat.
The other interns and I fix something for dinner and discuss our days at work, each filled with our own stories. Our answers to each other's questions always begin with, "well, work was okay," and we can each end up telling endless stories of what clients said, how Lydia's summer camp went, or how Ginnie's meeting at the Capitol was.
After dinner we are all about ready to call it quits and lie down, but we've created a list of places to go and things to eat that we must absolutely finish by the end of our time here, or so we say. Tomorrow we will go to Blues on the Green at Zilker Park, a free summer blues concert that occurs every other Wednesday. At the end of the day I put my head down, hopefully cross something off my list and wonder what disguised lives the white papers will hold tomorrow.