Making Change

Professor takes on-the-ground approach to economic development

Professor Shawn Humphrey (in brown sweatshirt) and Alex Erskine ’14 haul cardboard to construct a shelter on Ball Circle for the $2 a Day Challenge; Keegan Cooke ’14 and Lucy Pierson ’12 look on. Humphrey’s students get out of the classroom to experience situations that illustrate the challenges of poverty, such as the week in April when they live on $2 a day. Photo by Norm Shafer.

Shawn Humphrey came to UMW seven years ago, 34 years old and a freshly minted associate professor, ready to teach his young charges what he calls the “very beautiful” theories of economics.

“As economists, we try to create these mathematical models to explain why things are the way they are,” he said.

What he didn’t bring was an answer for a sharp question asked by a few students in his first comparative economics class. They had been working in poor communities in Honduras, as part of Students Helping Honduras, SHH, a nonprofit group started at UMW by Shin Fujiyama ’07. The students wanted to know, how do we change the way things are?

“They started challenging me,” Humphrey said. “They asked, ‘How do your lectures prepare me for helping others?’ I never had an answer for them. I was like, ‘Who are these people?’ ”

In the same way that the experience in Honduras had changed the students, their question changed Humphrey. What distinguishes him as a teacher is his willingness to face the unsettling prospect of challenging his own ideas of how to teach economics and how to help his students get ready for their work beyond college. “I don’t like to not have an answer for my students,” he said. “So what I do now comes out of that frustration.”

In the seven years since, Humphrey has created a way for UMW students to work in impoverished areas of Honduras and to let them feel the power – and the burden – of trying to effect change in the world outside the classroom.