On Tuesday, Nov. 18, 20 students as part of an empathy class made 580 cardboard cut-out people to place on the University of Rhode Island’s quadrangle as part of a demonstration to raise awareness of homeless college students.
The seemingly innocent display shocked many of the people who approached the involved students, once they learned the cardboard cut-outs represented the 580,000 homeless college students in the country.
“The focus was going to be for an entire class effort that had two components; raising awareness and direct action” said Professor Heather Johnson as she explained that she wanted the students to understand empathy, which she defined as “an emotional investment in another persons life”, and use that understanding to raise awareness and create change.
Many of the students in the class, like Dana Illingworth felt that “this number [580,000 homeless students] shocked us so we figured it would shock the rest of the community”, she said.
They felt compelled to share their new knowledge of student homelessness with their college peers. Student Sophie Jong, also felt rewarded “having people stop and be like ‘what is this?‘ and being able to share that with them has really let us do a little bit in raising awareness for national homelessness and hunger awareness effort,” said Jong.
Along with their mission to raise awareness they also hoped to dispel some of the stereotypes and myths associated with homelessness. A portion of the pamphlet that was handed out at this demonstration was dedicated to disapproving this. One of the biggest stereotypes that they tried to dispel is the idea that the homeless population consists of “smelly old men.” In a class interview it was shared that the homeless males usually do not tend to live in shelters, which is why they are the most visible to the public. They also shared that usually the drunks and the drug addicts that are the most visible are usually those that suffer from chronic homelessness, which accounts for only about 1 percent of the homeless population. The class said 41 percent are families, 25 percent were five years of age or younger, and 41 percent were women.
Of course student homelessness was not the only topic on the drawing board as the 20 students tried to decide what their class effort would be. When voting which topics, homelessness beat the problems revolving veterans, mental health/illness and sexual assault/rape by a very close vote.
“We wanted to make visible a population that is invisible,” said Johnson. “There are homeless students here at URI but they are invisible to everyone, and we wanted people to know that they exist. We are hoping that the students of Rhode Island would become aware that there are people just like them, who have no home to go to for Thanksgiving or in the summer. And also that this would break a stereotype that exists that homeless people are old, drunk men lying in the street”.
“I loved working on this project because the class has just been really hands on. I Iearned so much because of this problem based learning and [the fact that] we had to take a lot of initiative throughout [the process of] this project”, said Jong. The effort was almost completely student led and completely hands on. It took the 20 students in the class three hours of a sunday along with volunteers with the Feinstein experience (a total of about 40 people) along with about two class periods to complete the 580 cut-outs that completed the display.