By Dane Gibson
The Clemente Course is a rigorous, university-level course that’s been breaking down educational barriers at Vancouver Island University since 2008.
The program is open to anyone who has a driving intellectual curiosity and desire to engage in higher education but because of life circumstances or challenges, never found an opportunity to do so.
Back in 2008, Adaline Russell joined a handful of other students at the first Clemente course offered at VIU. The grandmother of six vividly recalls the first days she became a VIU student. She says during that time in her life she was severely depressed. Despite this, when she heard about the Clemente course, she found the strength to put her name in.
“At the time my mental health support worker drove me to and from the classroom because I couldn’t get there on my own,” said Russell. “After three weeks we were on our way home and she looked at me and said: ‘My goodness, you have a smile on your face!’ I thought about it and said: ‘Yes, I am really enjoying what I’m learning.’ I was finally being stimulated intellectually and I realized that was what was missing from my life.”
Founded in 1995 by writer and activist Earl Shorris and based on his book Riches for the Poor, Clemente Course in the Humanities students learn through dialogue about moral philosophy, literature, history, critical thinking and writing. Since its inception, the course has been offered by universities and colleges around the world. Philosophy professor Robert Pepper-Smith is the Clemente program co-coordinator at VIU. He says the Clemente Course offers a doorway into secondary education to people who struggle with challenges such as mental health issues, poverty and disability.
“In life, Clemente students often find roads are blocked. Opportunities to gather publically or socially often dry up over the years and they become more isolated,” said Pepper-Smith. “This course offers a different road. Our students enroll to show themselves that they belong here and their opinions have value.”
Pepper-Smith calls it one of the most important community engagement efforts the university undertakes. The course fees, child care, books, bus passes and snacks are all provided by VIU. Island Health provides space for the course at the Princess Royal Family Centre and students are referred through organizations like the Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre, the John Howard Society of Nanaimo and Nanaimo Mental Health and Addictions.
In June, Russell was awarded her bachelor of arts degree.
Dane Gibson is a writer with VIU communications.