Today I ate lunch in a homeless shelter.
Before my family starts frantically calling me, let me explain: I was given lunch there because it’s where I volunteer as part of the Health Practice and Policy program.
When I found out that my service-learning placement for IES Abroad was at a homeless shelter, I was nervous. Would the clients be kind or horrible? What kind of tasks would I be doing? What even is service-learning? I had never worked with a population quite so vulnerable before, and now I was being asked to do so in another country.
For the past three years I have gone to university in Washington, DC, and during that time I have been exposed to homeless individuals on almost a daily basis. But I almost never interact with them. I have developed a city-slicker stare, one that allows me to look right past every homeless individual I pass. Almost everyone I’ve seen in London seems to have developed one too.
I have never allowed myself to feel too guilty when I pass a homeless person on the street. After all, I am a college student. If I gave even a bit of spare change to every homeless man or woman I passed, I would never be able to pay off my student loans. Plus, I have heard the warnings about panhandlers and beggars using the money to buy drugs or worse. So I’ve gotten skilled at swallowing my guilt and continuing on with my day.
But now I’m being asked delve far deeper. I’m being asked to give my time to help the same men and women that I might nervously glance past on the street. As part of the Enterprise and Training department, I have role to play in helping the shelter’s clients get back into work, education, or training programs.
This experience has been an absolute blessing.
I like to think that I’ve made a difference, however small, during my service-learning placement. I have had the chance to help prepare and serve a meal to clients. I have helped a woman find an English class. I have worked on resumes and cover letters. I have led a job search session, full of volunteers and clients, by myself. I've eaten alongside the clients. These are little things that add up in people’s lives.
But the people at my service-learning placement have given me more than I could possibly give them. The clients have made me laugh or smile almost daily. They have told me stories about the places they’ve come from and asked me for stories about life in the US. I actually know some British slang now. I’ve learned so much about homelessness in London, from the reasons why people are homeless to the policies in place to help them. The staff members are friendly and caring, and I am constantly amazed by their ability to do difficult, necessary work every day and still keep smiles on their faces. They have welcomed me with open arms, and not just as “the intern”.
It’s possible to study abroad in London and never leave the touristy areas. To stay safely marooned in King’s Cross, Westminster, Shoreditch, Covent Gardens, and Kensington. But my placement has sent me into Tower Hamlets, one of the city’s poorest boroughs, and given me the chance to see how some Londoners live in the shadow of the tourist district.
Studying abroad is always a matter of leaving one’s comfort zone and reaching out to meet new people. Service-learning has allowed me to do both in a meaningful way.
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<p>Hi, I’m Angela! I’m a junior at American University, where I’m majoring in International Studies and minoring in Public Health. I enjoy drinking hot chocolate, reading good books, and singing along to *every* song on the Hamilton soundtrack. I grew up in the Rust Belt, live in DC, and can’t wait to study healthcare and experience life in London. I’m not throwing away my shot!</p>