A Venture adventure changes hard-luck lives
May 31, 2006
The Salt Lake Tribune
By Brandon Griggs
As a 44-year-old single mom living on a $577 monthly disability check, Barbra Moeller had given up on her dreams. Abuse, homelessness and poverty had sapped her self-esteem, and she suffered from lupus, a debilitating disease that causes aching joints and chronic fatigue.
Moeller lived only for her three children. The notion of bettering her own life seemed unimaginable.
Yet there she was this month at Westminster College, crossing a stage to accept a certificate for completing an eight-month, college-level humanities course for low-income Utah adults. As her children watched, Moeller wiped away tears at the podium and spoke with newfound pride about how studying poetry and Plato had changed her life.
"I thought [the course] would give me something to teach my kids. I didn't think there was anything in it for me," she said later. "But the more I learned, the more I realized my life is not over. It's like I'm alive again. I had no idea that learning about dead people and art would make me feel this way."
The Midvale woman is one of 16 hard-luck Utahns who overcame numerous hurdles to complete the first-ever Venture Course in the Humanities, a free offering of the Utah Humanities Council. Funded by a private donor, the Venture program is modeled on the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which has been offered since 1995 at Bard College in New York City. Similar humanities courses for low-income adults are under way in 13 states.
Conventional wisdom has long dictated that education for working-class adults focus on vocational skills, such as cosmetology or welding. But the Venture students took classes in art history, literature, philosophy, American history and essay writing - fields that don't excite most employers. The program's mission is to empower its students by giving them new tools, such as critical thinking, to help them make better life choices. Students also earn college credits.
To be eligible, Utahns had to earn less than about $30,000 annually and not have completed college. They also had to write a 400-word essay, describing a significant event in their lives or explaining what they hoped to gain from the course.
"I want more for my children," Moeller wrote. "I want to see the brilliance of life sparkle in their eyes, not just the dim awareness of survival."
Twenty students, ranging in age from 17 to 62, began the course last September. The program provided free books, child care and some transportation costs to and from the Horizonte school in Salt Lake City, where classes were held two nights a week.
At first, most students were terrified.
"I was really nervous. I felt coming into this that I had a lot of inadequacies," said Lisa DeHerrera, 35, of West Valley City, who feared being dismissed by teachers or students because she had spent five years in prison for dealing drugs. "I've never really accomplished anything. And I was afraid to fail."
The course's five faculty - all current or former instructors at the University of Utah or Westminster College - didn't know what to expect, either. Would these students be able to complete the course work while juggling jobs and family obligations? Would they be too tired after working all day to participate in class?
They needn't have worried. As the students grew comfortable with each other and warmed to the material, they clamored over each other to be heard.
"They were extremely enthusiastic and engaged," said Bridget Newell, who taught philosophy. "We had a two-hour class and sometimes I'd say, 'Ready for a break?' And they'd say, 'No! Let's keep going.' "
Aside from being almost all women, the students were a remarkably diverse bunch. Shahla Naeimi is a refugee from Iran who took class notes in Farsi. Heidi Rojas grew up in Puerto Rico. Ismail Hussein, a native Somalian, came to Utah several years ago from a refugee camp in Kenya. Gina Zivkovic is the single mother of seven.
Almost from the beginning, the Venture students applied the course material to their own lives. Art history instructor Jennifer Bauman showed students an ancient sculpture of a fat woman, a revered fertility goddess, that made Moeller feel better about her own body. Literature instructor Jeff Metcalf assigned "The Journey," a Mary Oliver poem about rejecting others' bad advice to find one's own way in the world.
Newell started her class with Plato's Allegory of the Cave, which describes people, raised in a dark cavern, who see only shadows on the walls. One man escapes to the outside world, where his eyes adjust to the light until he looks around and realizes how little he was seeing before. He returns to enlighten the other cave-dwellers, only to find they don't want to leave the only reality they have known.
For many Venture students, the classes' rigorous workload was a shock. DeHerrera, who works in a medical-supply warehouse and spends most nights caring for her disabled father, sacrificed her weekends to catch up on her reading. Moeller juggled course work with her weekly chemotherapy treatments.
"At one point or another, every one of us wanted to quit," said Steve Acevedo, who credits the course with helping pull him from a depression caused by a flurry of deaths among his friends and family, including his 4-year-old daughter. So what kept him going? "Pride," he said. "I wasn't going to let it defeat me."
Acevedo, 52, also credits his Venture professors.
"Their support and encouragement meant so much," said the Midvale man, a former sales rep who is currently looking for work. "They saw in us what we couldn't see in ourselves."
Of the 20 students who began the course, 16 finished. All joined their families and their professors for a bittersweet May 12 graduation ceremony, where the sadness of a good thing ending mixed with the joy of accomplishment.
"It was incredible," said Newell of the emotional event. "We might as well have given everyone $2 million for how happy they were."
Two of the Venture graduates already have been accepted at four-year colleges. More hope to enroll soon if they can get financial aid. Everyone involved says the has been one of the most enriching experiences of their lives.
"All of us [faculty] say this is the best teaching we've ever done," said Utah Humanities Council assistant director Jean Cheney, who led the writing class and also spearheaded the Venture program. "It's made me value more what I teach, because I realize what it can do for people. You go into teaching to make a difference, but often it's hard to know if you have. With these students, you could see it."
The Utah Humanities Council already is seeking new students for the second year of the Venture course, which begins in September. All five faculty members have committed to return. The course will end after 2007 unless the UHC can secure more funding, which is a huge priority for Cheney. "It would just be a crime for this not to go on," she said.
Venture's inaugural students agree. DeHerrera believes the course has helped her shed her shame at being an ex-con and envision a better future for herself.
"I don't have to be whatever society labels me as," she said. "I learned that I am bright. I'm hungry for knowledge now, and I'm not going to stop."
Then there's Moeller, who spent much of her life in a polygamist community that she says stifled her innate curiosity. After leaving the colony a decade ago, she fell into poverty and despair. Four years ago, Moeller and her kids were living out of her car. Now the Venture course has inspired her to go to college.
"I'd come home from every class saying, 'Kids, kids, look what I've learned!' " she said. "For two hours a night, we were taken out of poverty and into the best that humans have created. You look at life differently when you look at it through the joy of humanity. My life will never be the same."