Small Temporary Glimpse

When I first learned about the Two Dollar Challenge (TDC) from Professor Shawn Humphrey, I immediately thought of how we could apply it to our “weServe  (Service through Innovation) Program (weServe) at Drexel University.

weServe’s mission is to provide service and leadership opportunities that allow students to enhance their academic and professional experiences with a firsthand understanding of healthcare needs and disparities at a local and global level, and to address such unmet needs via service through innovation and partnerships.

weServe partners with communities with limited resources, locally in Philadelphia, and internationally in The Gambia and Mozambique, both countries that are listed as “low-income” countries by the WHO. As the program director, I immediately felt that the TDC would be a great educational exercise that would enable students to relate to the beneficiaries of their service, both locally and globally.

When I posed the Two Dollar Challenge to my students, they immediately became intrigued with the idea, and rose to the challenge by engaging several students around campus to participate in the activity, held on Drexel’s campus in April 2012. After weeks of planning, we secured a site, which provided us the most visibility so that we could engage in conversation with others on campus as well.

Our goal was two-fold. One to provide the experience for the weServe students to get a small glimpse into what life with very limited resources “feels” like, albeit temporarily. The other part was to create awareness of homelessness (by living in a shelter we built out of cardboard boxes and tarps), as well as the relevance of poverty and living on $2 a Day in Philadelphia.

Both goals were accomplished in different ways. Students experienced the feeling of what it is like to not have much on a daily basis, while watching others pass by with a lot more than they had. This also gave the students an appreciation of their own experiences when serving others who have many limitations, physical, social or financial. We held several motivating discussion groups with a professor from Drexel’s philosophy department as well as our guest speaker, Dr. Christiaan Morssink, President at the United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia. Our faculty in Biomed also challenged the students to develop an educational toy with very few basic resources; such as they would have to do if they were in a resource poor community in Africa. The students came up with a couple of interesting ideas.

We faced extreme heat in the day and severe winds and lower temperatures at night, which damaged our shelter and required reinforcements to keep it up in the middle of the night. The last night, we had some people “attack” our shelter, and the following day we were literally evicted from our space! Living on less than two dollars a day taught students the importance of interdependency, the challenges of finding food with nutritional value, the benefits of communal meals and activities, as well as dealing with the challenges of living in harsh weather conditions and no guarantee of a permanent home.

This resonated very personally with me because of my own personal history, but upon reflection with the students, it was quite apparent that they too felt a sense of humility and empathy towards the conditions so many people live in not only in developing countries but right here in their own backyard, in Philadelphia (and probably most American cities)! Taking this challenge also helped develop a bond with other students who shared their experiences.

In the process we also raised significant funds, and collected 111 pounds of non-perishable food, which we donated to Philabundance, Philadelphia region’s largest food bank and hunger relief organization. I believe this will be one of the more memorable experiences for the participating students during their college years, and I am confident it is going to positively impact their character in years to come.

Shirin Karsan; weServe program Director
School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems
Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA, USA

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