Humanities professors build "a bridge to higher education" for inner city adults
Clemente Humanities Course graduation set for June 11 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum
A dozen SouthCoast adults will graduate Monday from a unique education program, the Clemente Course in the Humanities, that speaks to both poverty of the wallet and poverty of the spirit. The graduation ceremony will take place Monday at 6 p.m. at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
"The course is designed to provide poor citizens with a bridge to higher education, while helping them to build and recover the skills of critical self-reflection and verbal and literary expression essential for self-governance and full economic and political participation in a democracy," according to UMass Dartmouth Assistant Professor of History Mark Santow.
Most students in the program are single parents seeking a better life for their children. Santow serves as the course's academic director and U.S. history teacher.
Started 10 years ago by Earl Shorris in New York City, the program is funded by The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, UMass Dartmouth and PACE of New Bedford. Clemente Courses presently exist in Holyoke and Dorchester as well as dozens of other cities around the country. To date, approximately 2,400 have enrolled in the courses; 1,500 earned graduation certificates; and more than 1,000 students transferred to pursue college or university degrees.
Now in its second year, the New Bedford course provides free college-level humanities classes to low-income adults as well as free transportation, childcare and books. The program encompasses classes in moral philosophy, literature, writing, art history and history. Over eight months, classes were held on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the PACE/Head Start School on Madison Avenue in New Bedford. Upon successful completion, participants are eligible to receive six hours of college credit from Bard College. Those credits can be transferred to any U.S. university.
Five out of the seven May 2006 graduates are now taking college courses.
Student Patricia Nadeau, a single mother, enjoys engaging in discussions with her classmates and the diversity of the offered subjects. "What I like most is meeting new people and hearing their different and interesting ideas." She said that the course motivates single parents to set good examples. "It shows our children that education is important and allows us to be good role models." Nadeau plans to pursue her undergraduate degree when she completes the Clemente course..
Santow said the current class includes older students seeking intellectual stimulation and self improvement. Two students who didn't grow up speaking English are thriving in the program with the help of an English as a Second Language tutor.
Santow said one of last year's graduates suffered severe head trauma from an automobile accident. Her injuries affected her memory, made it difficult for her to work full-time and weakened her emotional stability. "I am most grateful for this chance that allowed me to grow in my heart," she wrote in one of her papers. "I've grown in mind and courage and I am not afraid to question what I don't understand." This Clemente alumna is now taking classes at Bristol Community College.
Because New Bedford is one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts with the lowest level of educational attainment, the Clemente Course is one tool to help its low-income citizens achieve upward social mobility. "Educational attainment remains the surest individual path to economic self-sufficiency. By helping poor citizens get a foot in the door of higher education, the Clemente Course provides them with an opportunity to pull themselves and their families out of poverty," Santow said.
UMass Dartmouth's Director of Women's Studies Jeannette Riley became involved with the course because it fit her belief in providing equal opportunity for everyone. "I was drawn by the opportunity to work with people in the New Bedford area and to do something that could have a real effect on people's lives," she said.
UMass Dartmouth Lecturer Elizabeth Lehr, who teaches the writing class, has similar motivation for participation. "I can see in this nation we do not offer equal access to opportunity and education and I wanted to be part of one solution to that problem," Lehr said.
Lehr is impressed by the fact that Clemente students are highly motivated. "They arrive ready to voice an opinion. Our program helps them formulate opinions and check the validity of their opinions. Later, they can take what they've learned and apply it to all aspects of their work and personal lives," she said. "For many of them, this is a chance to discover that their thinking processes work well and are valued and valuable."
Riley, who teaches literature, marvels at her students' ability to juggle jobs, family and economic struggles while still diligently attending classes and embracing the opportunity to learn. "The class values language and the power that language has. They have really engaged with literature and thought about how stories say something about the world we live in. And in doing so, I think they've discovered how literature can help them make sense of their experiences."
Memory Holloway, who teaches the art history class, said that the program uses the approach to teaching that she believes in. "You work with other professors, you work in the community and you learn more about the place that you live than you ever thought possible," Holloway said. "And you learn this from the students, who in the process of teaching you, teach one another and themselves."
"The course is about helping people realize the value of the humanities and arts in their lives-and this is something that leads to lifelong learning and an increased appreciation of culture and the world around us," Riley said.
Holloway noted that when her students look at great works of art, the experience immediately sparks meaningful discussions. "They have ideas about the paintings that are completely new, based on their every day experiences of living in New Bedford. So, we take grand and great works of 'high culture' and ask the big questions: Why am I here? Why is there so much inequality? Why do I feel that no one listens to me and how can I change that?"
"This year, the Clemente group has really found a way to articulate what it means to be voiceless in our society and how important it is to find their own voices because they need to be heard and should be heard in our communities," Riley said.
Plans are in the works for the class to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They have already traveled as a group to a Providence theater and to the New Bedford Library to conduct research. "It's really a two-way street. When I leave at night, I think about what they have said and I'm changed by having been with them," Holloway said. "They are changed by us and by one another."
Author: "John Hoey"
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