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Reflecting on 10 Years, Countless Lessons from Homelessness Experience

For the 10th year, students in UC's Intercultural Communication class will spend 36 hours immersed in the homeless community as part of an intensive service learning project.

Date: 10/24/2013 12:00:00 AM
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-1825

UC ingot   MJ Woeste wants to make his students uncomfortable.

By doing so he hopes to open their eyes, their minds and maybe even their hearts to a culture of people who are often ignored at best and discriminated against at worst – the homeless.

Like he has for the past decade, Woeste will take a group of University of Cincinnati students into downtown Cincinnati to live as members of the homeless community for 36 hours. The experience later this month will mark a few milestones for Woeste and his Intercultural Communication class at UC – 10 years, 360 hours, more than 800 students and countless lives affected.
UC students take part in a previous year’s homelessness experience as part of MJ Woeste’s Intercultural Communication class. (Photo provided by MJ Woeste)

"The homelessness experience is very intense. I tell students up front that it's not for everybody, it will make you uncomfortable," says Woeste, a professor educator of communication in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. "But there will be things you're going to learn from it that you won't get other ways. I have 10 years' worth of data that support the notion that students were impacted positively by being exposed to a community that they wouldn't have willingly spent time with."


Woeste works with City Gospel Mission to coordinate the homelessness experience for his class. City Gospel Mission has been serving Greater Cincinnati for almost 90 years. The faith-based initiative collaborates with local churches to offer a variety of programs and services to help those in need break the cycle of poverty and despair. City Gospel Mission annually serves nearly 139,000 hot meals and provides nights of safe shelter to anyone in need.

Much of the students' time during the experience is spent with men in City Gospel Mission's Exodus Program, a long-term residential recovery program for men struggling with drug or alcohol addictions. A typical stay in the program is 10 to 12 months.  

"The interaction that takes place between the men in the recovery program and the students, that's the real deal," Woeste says. "The students get a chance to have a real conversation with these guys who are just like they are. They might think, 'It could be me.' And that's a good lesson to learn."

Just ask Ryan Nerswick. The communication major was among about a dozen students who went on the homelessness experience last year. Growing up, Nerswick avoided homeless people and looked down on them. After taking Woeste's class, his attitude has changed.

"When you hear the stories of the men from the Exodus program and some of the people who are homeless, you're surprised. You realize, 'You're not very different from me,'" Nerswick says.
UC students take part in a previous year’s homelessness experience. They must live for 36 hours much the same way as those in Cincinnati’s homeless community. (Photo by Dottie Stover, UC Creative Services)

Service learning, such as what's required in the Intercultural Communications class, is an important part of the university's UC2019 Academic Master Plan. By participating in academic community partnerships at the local, national or international level, students gain a richer mastery of course content, enhance their sense of civic responsibility and ultimately develop a more integrated approach to understanding the relationship between theory, practice, ideas, values and community.  

The efforts of Woeste and his students are also Cincinnati Smart – a unique and effective way of learning that combines excellent classroom experiences with real-world opportunities through experiential options made possible at UC. This hands-on style of learning gives students new perspective on any number of issues across town and around the world, such as homelessness.  

The "State of Homelessness in America 2012" report from the nonprofit National Alliance to End Homelessness tracked changes in overall homelessness and in homelessness among subpopulations between 2009 and 2011. The report shows the national rate of homelessness was 21 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population. While the nation’s homelessness population decreased by 1 percent from 2009 to 2011, the report also indicates that the effects of the poor economy on homelessness are escalating and expected to continue to do so in the coming years.  


Nerswick and fellow communication major Taylor Clouse, also a homelessness experience veteran, will help Woeste lead this year's experience. A group of around 18 students from the Intercultural Communication course will head downtown – their eyes wide and their perceptions about to unravel – for a weekend they won't soon forget.

The details of the experience are kept secret, in part to preserve its integrity for future students. But it’s understood the students will live for a day and a half much the same way that many on the streets of Cincinnati have for years. They'll be tired. They'll be hungry. They'll struggle to accomplish things that many people take for granted. Mostly, they'll be uncomfortable.

"For me it was an extremely humbling experience. I went in there thinking, 'They put themselves in this position,'" says Clouse. "Then hearing their stories, you realize life just happens and sometimes it's really unfortunate.

"I want to have this experience again to see if I can learn a little more from a different standpoint. I'm excited to see how other students react to what we went through. You can read all the theories in the book. You can pull up YouTube clips and try to understand. But having an experience, it makes you understand things in a completely different way."

Woeste was recently honored by Ohio Campus Compact, a nonprofit membership organization of 47 Ohio colleges and universities. He was given the 2013 David Hoch Memorial Award for Excellence in Service. The award honors the outstanding work in service learning and/or civic engagement by a faculty or staff member at an Ohio Campus Compact member institution.