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Into the poverty line

Students get crash course in what it’s like to not make ends meet in simulation designed to develop more societal empathy

UND Nursing students
As part of a recent simulation hosted by the UND College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines, students were asked to assume varying family roles and maneuver the intricacies of making ends meet when there are not enough resources to go around. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

University of North Dakota students on Friday got a crash course in it what it’s like to live in poverty and how hard it is to recover from its downward spiral.

To make this point, the atrium area of the UND College of Nursing & Professional Discipline’s Northern Plains Behavioral Research Center was converted into a make-shift city, complete with schools, a bank, a bus stop ticket office, pawn shop and a transportation office. Here, students assumed varying family roles. With very little money, their goal was to survive, and at the same time, care for their family units.

It may have been a simulation, but thanks to the amped up stress levels provided by contracted role players and volunteers, and the real-world basis of the scenarios in play, the whole thing was nothing short of mind-opening for UND students.

The focus of the simulation is on increasing students’ awareness and empathy for people living in poverty. This is a significant problem in Grand Forks, where 25 percent of the people live in poverty, according to Jackie Roberts, with the UND College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines.

“Our goal is for the students to really have a meaningful experience, and maybe for them to develop more societal empathy toward people who live in poverty,” Roberts said. “I think we all have some empathy but this (poverty simulation) tends to really bring it out … and helps students to understand what kinds of life circumstances may happen to cause that and how hard it is to recover from living in poverty .”


UND Nursing students
UND students navigate through a mock city, experiencing what it’s like to live below the poverty line, as part of a simulation hosted by the UND College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

Family groups

Maridee Shogren and Chris Harsell, in the UND Department of Nursing, helped Roberts coordinate the simulation. UND also contracted with the Community Action Partnership of North Dakota in Fargo to administer the simulation.

As part of the simulation, students representing several disciplines, including Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Psychology, and Nutrition & Dietetics, as well as others from the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Medicine & Health Sciences, maneuver the intricacies of making ends meet when there is not enough resources in the family.

Students were separated into different types of family units in varying circumstances, including a newly unemployed household, homeless families, seniors on disability and grandparents raising their grandchildren. They were forced to work together and to navigate the various support networks to keep the family together, care for their children, provide food and housing for their family and pay weekly bills.

“We try to mix the different (academic) disciplines of students so they’re not just with their peers and others that they know,” Roberts said. “We want them to by really interdisciplinary with their family groups.”

To facilitate learning in the roughly two hours that the simulation took place, every 15 minutes represented a month of living in poverty.

The entire experience was a memorable one for the students, from undergrad to grad, as well as for the cross-disciplinary faculty who participate as volunteers in the simulation, Roberts said.

She added, “The more we bring faculty and students together in an inter-professional manner to advance understanding of the people we serve, the more successful we are in the classroom and in our future practice.”