Homelessness Homework

NWU gender studies students recognize that poverty in Lincoln is a gendered issue. Lincoln’s overall poverty rate is roughly 11 percent. But for Lincoln households headed by single women, that rate nearly quadruples to about 38 percent. When that single woman has a child under 5, her chances of living in poverty shoot up to almost three in four.

The risk of homelessness is real for thousands of Lincoln women. This reality makes homelessness a relevant topic for Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Rachel Droogsma’s gender communication course. Her 19 students explored the topic of homelessness, quickly discovering the variety of gender differences that relate to socioeconomic class.

They embraced the opportunity and learned about homelessness. It wasn’t just an assignment; it became part of their lives.

Their coursework didn’t stay locked inside the safe confines of theoretical classroom discussion. Droogsma assigned her students a service project that helped them put the studied theories about gender communication into practice.

“Service learning brings course concepts alive,” Droogsma said. “They’re not learning in a box.”

That project began with an introduction to Monica Zinke. Zinke directs Fresh Start Home, a transitional service for homeless women in Lincoln. Zinke and students discussed the ways Fresh Start’s services relate to the concepts they studied.

That conversation led to the class’s main project. Students agreed to provide four interactive workshops to the women at Fresh Start that would address healthy relationships, journaling, healthy eating on a budget and exercising at home.

“The workshops were very well received. And that’s a credit to the students. The women can sometimes be skeptical of college students,” Zinke said of the Fresh Start residents. “The students found how to make it fun and interesting for them.”

Students said they were impressed by the women’s willingness to trust them and write and share personal experiences.

In November, the Lincoln Homeless Coalition recognized the NWU gender communication class “for outgoing support and commitment to addressing homelessness in the community.”

“I can’t say enough about them,” said Zinke, who nominated the class for the award. “They embraced the opportunity and learned about homelessness. It wasn’t just an assignment; it became part of their lives.”

Junior Kelsie Kadavy of Lincoln said, “I learned more about communication and about homelessness by interacting with these women than I could have with any book or class discussion. It is only when you step outside of your comfort zone that you learn real life lessons.”