Last week, nineteen Pepperdine University students went on an educational journey, not to a museum or a university, but to Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
The “urban plunge,” as they called it, was part of the school’s recognition of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. In addition to the “urban plunge,” the Pepperdine Volunteer Center hosted a series of forums and activities designed to sensitize students to the concerns of those less fortunate.
Annalise Brock, a senior from Nashville, Tennessee, was the head coordinator for the weeklong event. She is an international studies major who holds the senior student position at the Volunteer Center.
This is not a casual operation, but rather a well-oiled machine comprised of two staff coordinators and 23 select student “staff” members who fulfill their work-study requirements by working anywhere from six to 15 hours per week. Brock is in the 15-hours plus club, in addition to her full-time student status.
Many of the involved students found themselves in unusual situations, particularly those that spent the weekend on the streets of L.A. Rhonda McDowell, a political science major from Laurel, Delaware, grew up in an agricultural community where homelessness was nonexistent. She said she felt like a “rich white girl” when she arrived downtown last week, but soon she began to feel a sense of community on the street. She felt a climate of “people taking care of their own,” but also witnessed several outbursts of violence.
The students took part in variety of activities downtown, including serving dinner at the Union Rescue Mission, collecting trash, leading a prayer service in Macarthur Park, and participating in an “Adopt-A-Block” walking outreach program.
The visitors also devised four missions designed for total immersion in the environment: McDowell’s group had one member on crutches and had to find shelter for the night (although the entire group spent the night at the Hollywood Church of Christ). Another group had to find prescription medicine for a member in a wheel chair, and other students were assigned to find a job with no home address.
Although some students found an evangelical mission to be an important part of this event, Pepperdine professor Cynthia Cornell Novak says that is not the primary purpose of the “urban plunge.” Novak believes a liberal arts education needs to include community outreach programs such as this, and that these students are provided a unique learning environment.
Sociology student Liz Lashower found the “religious angle” was important for her. She said she is moved by “the power to transform lives through religion,” and hopes to work with inner city teens in the future. Another participant, Jimmy Douglass, a biology major from Kenya, hopes to return to Africa and work in underdeveloped areas as a Christian missionary.
The three students returned from their urban weekend to their bucolic Malibu Pepperdine campus to join a standing-room only crowd for a “town meeting” in the Stauffer Chapel.
Panelists included directors and residents from the Union Rescue Mission, the Downtown Women’s Center, and downtown’s Dome Village. Professor Novak led the visitors in a discussion of homeless and hunger programs; students posed questions to the panelists.
The week continued with several unusual events: a craft fair with items created by residents of the Downtown Women’s Shelter, and a children’s art workshop where young visitors from the Don King Shelter worked with Pepperdine students.