By Kelcey Norris
Youngstown State University students participated in a discussion about their experiences with poverty and food insecurity in the Youngstown area in Kilcawley Center’s Chestnut Room.
YSU Students United collaborated with PAYO, Poverty Awareness in Youngstown, focusing on a simulation of poverty.
Students were divided into several groups based on an assigned social class to receive a designated meal to eat.
While one individual received a three-course meal with dessert to finish, most of that individual’s peers ate an entirely different meal.
Marta Hergenrother, a senior psychology major, said there was one student per table that received the “high-class” meal.
“We had four other people at the table who had what we called a ‘middle-class’ meal, a protein and potatoes,” Hergenrother said. “Then we had our low-class meal, which was just rice and beans.”
As students began to contemplate why their meal looked different from their peers, there was a fourth group of participants that did not receive food.
Jasmine Smyles, senior exercise science major, said YSU President Jim Tressel gave the student organizers ideas about how to make the activity more diverse.
“He said to have the extra students sit on the side so they can have no meal,” Smyles said. “And when [they] saw the uneaten food going back, it sat with me that the people on the side aren’t eating at all. This is real life; this is reality.”
Smyles said she was able to gauge the students’ reactions to the meals as they were served.
“I think it’s a testament to our first reaction about how we think about food insecurity,” she said.
“I don’t think that people know how to dive in deep with that perspective, but the simulation helped, and the videos helped to explain that,” Smyles added.
The students watched videos on poverty and homelessness among their demographic.
After being shown that 725 people in Youngstown were identified as “chronically homeless” as of the 2017 census, they were encouraged to engage in the discussion.
Noor Khalayleh, a senior psychology major, led the students through the discussion and asked for their reactions.
“Every single time that we have these conversations, we want it to be a student-led discussion because it’s important for students to have a discussion among themselves so that they’re aware,” Khalayleh said. “We’re going to be the leaders of the future, and it’s important that we’re aware of these almost hot-button topics.”
Mackenzie Dalton, a freshman education major, spoke of her difference in experiences between her hometown of Cleveland and her new home in Youngstown.
“I’m from Cleveland, and I grew up in a nicer area,” Dalton said. “So to hear that it’s this bad and only an hour away from me makes me think, ‘What can I do to help? Are my friends living like this?’”
Dalton agreed with many in the audience that the lack of tourism and booming business in Youngstown may be a factor contributing to the high poverty rate.
“When people hear Youngstown, they think there’s lots of crime,” Dalton said. “Cleveland and Columbus, they have more opportunities for employment. Youngstown doesn’t have some of those things that could attract people to the area.”
Hergenrother also reminded the students of campus resources available to those in need.
“There are many resources on campus that we want students to be aware of, like the food pantry, the career closet. So if you have an interview and you need professional clothes, they can help,” Hergenrother said. “Reaching out to those resources to see how they can help you is important.”
Khalayleh left the discussion with a final message to always be considerate of the battles your roommates, classmates and professors are facing.
“My biggest message is always be kind to one another,” Khalayleh said. “You never know what the person sitting next to you, what the person you’re walking by between your classes … You never know what they’re going through.”
YSU Students United has hosted two other panel discussions this semester that serve as opportunities for students to debate and discuss differences among the student body.