MACON, Ga. – About 80 Mercer University students recently participated in Alternative Weekend, where First-year Integrative Foundational Program classes are introduced to the Macon community through service projects and to each other through team-building exercises.
Four INT 101 classes participated in activities tied to certain themes. Dr. Bridget Trogden's class explored education and poverty; Dr. David Nelson's class explored free will; Dr. Jarred Jenkins' class explored "engaging with the other;" and Dr. Natalie Bourdon's class explored food and culture.
Many of the students participated in a poverty simulation on Friday, Sept. 27, where participants were divided into families. Each family was given a scenario, and the students had to live one month in poverty. There were four 15-minute weeks in which the students had to go to work, get their "children" to school and pay bills. Some were arrested or evicted from their homes; some were unemployed and had to find jobs; and others were fired from their jobs.
"Agencies" were set up around the room to provide services to the students. Students could sell their possessions at the pawn shop or go to the bank to pay their bills. Community and student volunteers helped run the agencies.
"The goal is to help them realize that life happens and it's difficult to live day to day," said student volunteer Lexi Hurst. "It will give more weight to the projects that they're doing (during Alternative Weekend)."
Following the final 15-minute week, the students sat down and talked about what happened during the simulation.
"Did you get all your bills paid?," Hurst asked one student.
"Not even close," he replied.
Other students had similar troubles: one wasn't able to feed her kids, and others complained about having to wait in long lines.
"It was hard," said sophomore Chandi Patel. She was assigned the role of a 36-year-old, unemployed mother. "I learned that time management is a huge, important aspect to think about," she said, adding that she realized people in poverty usually don't have the opportunity to sit down and relax.
Lynn Denny works with the Macon Volunteer Clinic and offered her services during the simulation. She said that the simulation was realistic and that she sees similar situations every day in the lives of her patients at the clinic. "We are so blessed, and I don't know that people realize it," she added.
Vinessa Grant is a freshman in Dr. Trogden's INT 101 class. She participated in the full Alternative Weekend and said that the poverty simulation was eye-opening and that she would do it again.
On Saturday morning, Dr. Trogden's class went to Heritage Nursing Home. Grant talked with dementia patients and helped them with arts and crafts. Later, the students went to a local high school to help with SAT preparation.
"I learned that it's not about me," said Grant.
Grant said she also enjoyed camping and bonding with her classmates at Amerson Waterworks Park during the weekend. "It was the first time I had s'mores with a camp fire. It was fun."
Also on Saturday, Dr. Nelson's class rode city buses and visited a cemetery; Dr. Jenkins' class did community service at the Rainbow House; and Dr. Bourdon's class went to Rag and Frass Farm. All of the students returned to campus on Sunday morning, Sept. 29.
Dr. Trogden said that one of the many goals of Alternative Weekend is to introduce students to the Macon community. "What can you learn about self and others by looking at the city?," she asked. Another goal, she said, is the bonding and team-building.