LANCASTER, Pa. (WHTM) — “Students are in the classroom, and they can learn about poverty, they can learn about the statistics of how many people are at or below the poverty level, however until you immerse somebody in an actual situation, it doesn’t become real.”

That is why Kristen Zulkosky, director of the Center for Excellence in Practice at the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences, set up a poverty simulation for around 80 PA College health sciences students on Thursday morning.

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Students were divided into family units and assigned roles, and they had to navigate a month of living, working, attending school, paying their bills, getting health treatment, and more — all with limited income and resources.

Throughout the hour-long simulation, participants faced extra challenges like worsening health conditions, a week with no school, eviction, and imprisonment.

The goals of the practice were to teach future health care workers to be compassionate and nonjudgmental toward patients, teach them what kinds of resources are available for community members, and inspire them to pay it forward if they are in a position to give back to their communities, Zulkosky said.

Zulkosky remembers participating in another poverty simulation herself several years ago, and she wanted to bring it to PA College in the hopes that the messages received through the hands-on educational program would stick with students.

“A takeaway from this experience is how crucial it is to care about others, think about others, and never judge a book by its cover because you don’t know the miles that someone’s been through,” said Corey Lucas, a second-year Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences student who participated in the simulation.

“Life is full of many unpredictables, and life is going to throw you curveballs, and you never know what someone else is experiencing,” Lucas said.

Lucas and Krystal Leinbach, another second-year PA College student and simulation participant, wished the exercise could have lasted longer.

“Trying to figure out how to get everything done when I’m sick or the kids need to go to school or we don’t have a car or we were homeless at one point, too — we had to figure out all those things in such a short amount of time,” Leinbach said.

The poverty simulation was developed by the Missouri Community Action Network. The website about the simulation states, “Poverty is a reality for many individuals and families. But unless you’ve experienced poverty, it’s difficult to truly understand. The Community Action Poverty Simulation (CAPS) bridges that gap from misconception to understanding.”

The U.S. Census estimates that the poverty rate in Lancaster County was 10.5% as of 2019 data, and the overall U.S. poverty rate in 2020 was 11.4%.

The simulation aimed to show students what it can be like to live in a low-income household, but it also was meant to show them the community services and resources available to help.

For example, participants were taught about calling 211, a helpline that can connect individuals with assistance for everything from food to family services. Zulkosky hopes that students will be able to share resources like these with others who may need them in the future.

The Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences holds several simulations for nursing students throughout their time at the school. “I like the simulations because it puts a new perspective into place,” Lucas said. “It puts you in a situation that you normally wouldn’t think you’d be in, and it makes you think on your toes.”