Students in Wurzweiler Block Program Focus on “The New Poor”at Annual Common Day

Common Day, the annual outside-the-classroom learning experience that brings together Wurzweiler School of Social Work students of all levels and disciplines, was held on July 6 at YU’s Weissberg Commons. The three-hour event for students enrolled in Wurzeiler’s Block Program featured activities designed to stimulate students’ empathy for others as well as increase their own sense of campus community. More than 100 participants found out what it’s like to suddenly be scrambling to pay for the basic necessities of life while learning about methods to help a burgeoning part of our society called “the new poor.”

Who are the new poor? According to Lynn Levy, professor at Wurzweiler, the members of this group recently might have had a steady source of income, a nice place to live, food on the table and a sense of stability. But “after dealing with a debilitating, financially catastrophic illness or just losing their job, they often find themselves in a sudden, desperate situation,” said Levy. “Faced with the prospect of homelessness and hunger, they might be too proud to seek help or they just might not know where to find it.”

This year’s student-government-planned and -sponsored Common Day was devised to help address this challenge. It kicked off with an icebreaker that encouraged students to buy and trade for food and other basic necessities on a shoestring budget. This was followed by a video featuring real people from across the country that had suddenly fallen on desperate times. Students and faculty then engaged in lively case discussions that illustrated the challenges facing the new poor. Prizes, a raffle and a fun-fact bingo were included in the program to help enliven the day’s events.

“Our hope is that people will walk away from today’s program understanding that social situations can change very rapidly,” said Jordan Cares, who is from Toronto, Canada, and serves in Wurzweiler’s student government. “As practitioners, it’s also important to remember that you can’t always easily identify people based on the way they present themselves, even if you’re familiar with their past history.”

Although the theme of the day was serious, the planners did their best to invoke a sense of community and the joy of working together to solve problems.

“Common Day shows how learning can mix enjoyment and education,” said Danielle Sabler, student government president and a Long Island native currently based in Israel. “We want to raise awareness about the new poor and learn about the services that can be provided to this group, but we also want students to take the time to actually enjoy themselves. That’s why we serve food and include raffles and other entertainment as part of the program. This time of year we’re usually very stressed and overwhelmed with school work. This gets us out of the classroom and helps us engage.”

This point of more relaxed learning was also highlighted by Dr. Sheldon Gelman, The Dorothy and David I. Schachne Dean of Wurzeiler. But he emphasized that every detail in the planning had a purpose.

“While the main purpose of Common Day is to bring together the whole community outside a classroom setting, it should also be noted that the students are assigned seats,” said Gelman. “They’re not sitting with their friends, which means they will get to hear from students from different years. This enriches their experience and gives them a chance to start new relationships while learning and enjoying during a part of the day that’s normally very busy. That’s really what Common Day is all about: bringing us all together in new ways to share a common purpose.”