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Like so many others, Western Technical College Human Services student Morgan Pederson believed she had an idea of what homelessness looked like in her community.

“I assumed I would know if people were homeless or not,” Pederson said.

Those assumptions were put to the test when Pederson’s Human Services class learned how to conduct an interview, especially with those in need. This fall, Pederson and her class, with help from the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness, interviewed community members who are or had experienced homelessness. It was part of the Facing Project, a national storytelling project that aims to raise awareness about poverty in local communities.

Locally, it’s a three-part collaboration between Western, UW-La Crosse and Viterbo University. It aims to tell people’s stories of homelessness in the La Crosse area.

“(Human Services) students must be aware of their own judgements and be able to find empathy for the person they are trying to help,” said Ann Lichliter, the instructor for the class. “The best way of doing this is by building relationships with the people they want to help.”

“The experience was very powerful,” said Pederson.

According to Peterson, the experience has been beneficial not only in improving interview skills, but in understanding the lives of those homeless in the area.

“The person I interviewed maintained three jobs and attended college while being homeless,” she said. “That really opened my eyes. Don’t just focus on the streets, it really could be anybody who is suffering from homelessness.”

“Students learned that the stereotypes of individuals who experience homelessness were not accurate,” Lichliter said. “Each had unique stories that led them to being homeless. These individuals shared the same common values, desires and goals as the students do, and these individuals are good people.”

The Facing Project is part of Western’s Community Engagement program, which takes credit courses and uses them to address and solve community needs. Western students spend more than 25,000 hours each year in community-based learning projects. It is a large and unique part of the educational experience at Western.

“A goal of technical colleges is to prepare students for careers that contribute to society,” Lichliter said. “It is critical for human services students to be involved in community-minded projects to understand community strengths, needs and to realize that they can help bring about change.”

For Pederson, the class has been an eye-opening experience.

“It brought a whole new understanding and perspective of what it is like to be homeless in the community and what some of the reasons may be for finding yourself in such a tough situation,” Pederson said. “It really could be anybody who is suffering from homelessness.”

The three-part project continues. A UW-La Crosse Social Stratification course used the transcript interviews to write first person stories, which will be published online and shared with the community later this winter. Now, Viterbo University theatre students are devising a theater piece inspired by the storytellers. This production will be shown on March 20 and 21 at the Weber Center for the Performing Arts and will be free and open to the community.

To learn more about Community Engagement education at Western Technical College, visit www.westerntc.edu/community-engagement.

“Students learned that the stereotypes of individuals who experience homelessness were not accurate. ... These individuals shared the same common values, desires and goals as the students do, and these individuals are good people.” Ann Lichliter, Human Services instructor at Western

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