For Keita, class project opens eyes

On April 6, Baye Moussa Keita was at the top of the college sports food chain, a member of Syracuse’s Final Four team.

On April 18, he was sleeping in a cardboard box in the middle of a wind-swept Syracuse quad.

Technically, Keita was fulfilling a requirement for Jeff Pauline’s Personal and Social Responsibility class, but he got a lot more out of the assignment than a simple grade.

“It really opened my eyes," said Keita, a reserve center who averaged 3.7 points and 3.7 rebounds this season. “I’ve always been thankful for everything I have but this really made me aware."

That was precisely Pauline’s goal. His class is designed to help students adjust to college life, but also to educate them on life issues and social responsibilities. For years he’s taken his students to a Syracuse area rescue mission, but this year he decided to push the envelope.

With the hopes of bringing awareness campus-wide to homelessness and hunger, he had his 25 students assemble cardboard boxes that would serve as their overnight homes.

They were allowed the bare minimum of supplies -- “I had to let them bring their phones," Pauline said. “You can’t go cold turkey with 19, 20 and 21 year olds," -- and gathered around three in the afternoon. They stayed until sunrise.

“We had good boxes. We gave them water, but they still got a sense of how tough this is,’’ Pauline said. “It gave them a connectivity that they are people who are unfortunate. I think some of the issues young people struggle with is the idea of being a part of your community and helping out, not just altruistically but knowing that you can benefit other people.’’

Like most of his classmates he was more than a little stunned when Pauline first pitched the project idea in class.

“We were all like, ‘C’mon. Do we have to do this?’’ Keita said. “My teammates were like, ‘You’re crazy. That’s crazy.'"

But the more Pauline talked -- and especially after a visit to the rescue mission -- Keita grew more interested in the project. His enthusiasm, Pauline said, helped change his classmates’ opinions, too.

“It was sort of, ‘Well he’s not balking about doing this, so we shouldn’t either,’’ Pauline said. “His discussions helped other students get over their apprehension.’’

Thanks to his 6-10 frame, he had to combine two boxes for his temporary home but even the stretched accommodations were rough. He woke up stiff and sore -- "like I was boxing somebody,’’ Keita said -- but with a newfound understanding of what the homeless have to endure.

He admits to being like most college kids. Though born and raised in Senegal, Keita has spent the past four years in the United States, enjoying a comfortable life that has dulled him to what’s going on around him.

Though he wouldn’t qualify himself as a social activist just yet, Keita said the project did give him a new perspective.

“The problem is around us all the time, but nobody talks about it,’’ he said. “It’s like you don’t even notice it. This was a real eye-opening experience. My whole body hurt the next day. You can’t believe people live that way every single day.’’

Keita, in fact, was so impressed with the project that he’s talked to Pauline about ways to improve it next year and also asked if he could participate again -- even though he won’t be in the class.

He also plans on recruiting a few more volunteers that could turn what was merely an on-campus curiosity this year into a real attention-grabber next.

“Everything you do has to start small, but I think we can make this even better,’’ he said. “I’m going to get some of my teammates to do it. That will raise awareness even more.’’