University City

Students learn obstacles facing foreign-speaking community

Students work as families to manage their household and survive in the Spanish poverty simulation.
Students work as families to manage their household and survive in the Spanish poverty simulation. CRYSTAL O’GORMAN

UNC Charlotte students recently learned what’s it is like to be in another country where they don’t speak the language and have minimal resources.

Sixty students spent 2 1/2 hours immersed in a Spanish poverty simulation hosted by Spanish professor Susana Cisneros in partnership with Crisis Assistance Ministry at UNCC on Sept. 22.

During the exercise, the students, who take Spanish classes at UNCC, were grouped into 17 groups and given individual roles and responsibilities and were required to speak in Spanish the whole time.

Twenty-one Spanish-speaking community leaders, civil servants and business owners volunteered to represent the community in this exercise. The government organizations and businesses represented include: health care, banking, a mortgage company, utilities, work (general employment), social services, child care, public school, police department, interfaith services, a pawn shop, payday-advance loan company and grocery and clothing supercenter.

The students had monthly responsibilities many had not experienced, such as taking care of a home, managing a budget and paying bills on time, being responsible for children’s education, maintaining reliable transportation and responding to unexpected circumstances.

The exercise started with giggles and smiles, but halfway through it, there were many folded arms, furrowed eyebrows and frowns. Students were sent to jail, lost their jobs and homes and had children taken into custody of social services for not being able to manage their circumstances given their budget and responsibilities.

Myron McKenzie played the role of a 7-year-old who got suspended because he had to spend time away from school helping a family member in the community. “I didn’t feel heard,” he said. “It was hard to step outside of my life and think like a child, but when I did, I felt so lost.”

Jenny Rodriquez played a 15-year-old in a family of four. She said she had to grow up quickly because of her family’s circumstances. “I had to sacrifice things – couldn’t go to the zoo or a school Valentine’s Day celebration – and I had to work part-time to help pay the bills.”

Tracey Allsbrook commented on the challenge of speaking in Spanish: “The hardest thing was the language barrier – I am not fluent and was treated differently at different places (government organizations and businesses.) It was really frustrating because you can’t change who you are and you are being treated differently because you aren’t from here.”

Professor Susana Cisneros participated in a similar poverty simulation in English hosted by Crisis Assistance Ministry as part of a leadership workshop. It inspired her to challenge her students and others by giving them the chance to participate in Spanish: “I realized that the stress of the language-cultural barrier can challenge the opportunity for success, but it does not abolish it.”

Cisneros, whom has been teaching Spanish at UNCC for seven years, enjoys finding resources and unique experiences for students. In addition to the Spanish poverty simulation, she also created a Spanish legal panel, courthouse tour and police ride-along program for students taking Spanish for law enforcement. “My hope is that this project (Spanish poverty simulation) helped them realize how much they know and reflect on how much they want to know.”

Gina Esquivel, associate director of programs, education and civic engagement at Crisis Assistance Ministry lead the exercise. This was the first time the poverty simulation had been done in Spanish, although, the simulation has been directed by Crisis Assistance Ministry for seven years.

Esquivel said the poverty simulation was created to allow participants to “step into the shoes” of an impoverished family and come to terms with common barriers such as transportation, child care, health care and lack of time available to spend on recreation and entertainment. “Language adds an extra layer to those barriers, because communication is key to finding resources,” she said.

Poverty simulations can be catered to any group through Crisis Assistance Ministry, said Esquivel. They’ve created simulations for lawyers, teachers and business groups that emphasize struggles related to their profession.

Esquivel said they are willing to work within the community to keep the conversation going and hope to create change. “I hope there is more access to resources and true economic mobility across all classes. Where a 5-year-old child, who watches her parents work 50 to 60 hours a week and struggle to survive, still has a chance to move up in the economic spectrum. We do this by advocating for others – sharing community resources and making sure our neighbors are OK.”

Crystal O'Gorman is a freelance writer:

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Find out about Crisis Assistance Ministry’s poverty simulation by visiting