Learning Hope: Clemente Australia

It's 12 years since Clemente launched in Australia – the university program opening up philosophy, history, art, literature and logic to the poor and those experiencing multiple disadvantage. From a humble beginning in East Sydney with a handful of students, the program is now run through six universities around Australia and has hundreds of graduates. Many have gone on to further studies. However success cannot be measured entirely by crunching the numbers. For most, the greatest benefits are less tangible.

Associate Professor Peter Howard has been there right from the beginning, leading the establishment of Clemente Australia. Yarrie Bangura fled civil war in Sierra Leone with her family, and lived in Guinea before arriving in Australia. The 20-year-old completed the Clemente program at ACU in 2014. Now she's an established poet, artist, actress, and is commencing a Bachelor of International Development Studies. Alisse Grafitti spoke to Yarrie and Associate Professor Howard.

"The first and biggest impact on our Clemente students is a piece of plastic they are given by the University – their student card. It gives them a different sense of identity. It creates a new role for them. Right across the 12 years of the program, I'm always astounded by just how important that card is when a student commences Clemente.

Clemente Australia addresses a gap in the education often provided to the poor or socially disadvantaged. There is a significant focus on vocational education to provide those 'employable skills'. But where everything seems to fall into an abyss is when people don't understand themselves, understand how to relate to other people, or have an appreciation of their own potential to change their lives. Read More >>

That's why the program, a Certificate in Liberal Studies, focuses on the humanities. It's about examining life through  literature, ethics, psychology, sociology, and the arts. It provides a framework for people to look at themselves and at society. The students come to see themselves as individual citizens rather than cases that need to be managed.

One of the other key aspects of Clemente that has become evident in the program's ongoing research agenda is the importance of hope. Through learning, through education, through a connectedness with people, students come to build a future. It's a future of possibilities based on hope, as opposed to surviving for the now. That's the very big difference with Clemente Australia.

The program is taught in a community setting, as many of the students don't really feel that they belong in a university environment. The age range is from 18 and the oldest student has been 74.

Sometimes it's just taking a breath of Clemente and in that time identifying possibilities. One young man only completed a semester in Sydney. Then he moved to Brisbane, completed a social work degree, and is now working supporting children with autism. He said that Clemente was the door that he could walk through to achieve.

Or there are students like David. When we first met he had been living in a disabled toilet at Blacktown Station. Now he's just about to complete his bachelor degree, has been offered honours, and is on the Dean's List.

Then there is the ripple influence of Clemente. The students re-connect with family, make new friends, and begin to socialise in different ways. One person has said to me it's really hard doing Clemente when I live in a building where everyone is on the grog. But now I can walk down the street and meet people I know from class and talk about other things.

The other question you have to ask is what the students' presence offers the University. These students come from such a diverse range of ethnic, cultural, and social backgrounds. They have a voice and a view and are willing to share their knowledge.

There is also a real necessity for Australian universities to become much better aware of the different worlds that people live in. Whether it be people of Indigenous or refugee background, or people with mental health issues. I'm often struck at how under-prepared many universities are to be able to engage purposefully and sincerely and sustainably with those communities.

Yarrie came to Australia as a young child from the conflict in Sierra Leone. She still has flashbacks of what she experienced.

She found out about Clemente and asked if there was any way she could take a step forward. This was a person willing to take a risk. After she completed two units she said Peter, I want to do it quicker, and she did. Now her sister wants to consider university because of what Yarrie has achieved. When she comes onto campus, Yarrie is a significant impact. ACU is a much better place with her as a student here.

I feel privileged rather than proud of my involvement in Clemente: privileged to be at a university like ACU that enabled this program to happen. Privileged to work with people who share a common value base of justice and getting things done. I certainly feel privileged to have met so many gifted people as Clemente students. They have taught me much about life in Australia, life in challenging times, and life at the hard edges."

Yarrie Bangura  Clemente Graduate

"We left Sierra Leone because of the war. I lived in Guinea for a long time. It was not good. Not enough to eat, life was hard and we were struggling. In Guinea you are on your own. We were hurt, we were wounded, we were scared, but we had to try and carry on.

My uncle sponsored us to come to Australia. I came with my family. I have two brothers and three sisters. I loved it even before I arrived. I knew this was a place I would be reborn after being dead inside. I knew my hopes and dreams would finally come to life. When I was in Guinea there was no hope. You feel worthless, and what's the point of living. Here there was hope for me as a woman to become something in life.

I came here feeling very happy, thinking that the storm was over. I was so happy I thought I would forget everything that had happened in the past. But the past started attacking me, the flashbacks of war, every night and every day, even though I am safe.

I am from a culture where we don't usually talk about what has happened, or what is bothering us. I kept it all inside and every day I am being hunted by my past.

I tried therapy, and different things, but it didn't seem to hold my heart or stop the pain. People in my country believe very much in education, so I thought ok, I will try education.

Clemente showed me there was something out there for me. I knew I wanted education but I was scared because I was doubting myself, I thought it would be so difficult. But Peter went through it with me, and all the teachers and mentors were so supportive.

I started to write and describe what I see, hear, and feel. I didn't know it was poetry until I let some people read it and they told me. I was just describing what I see. When I came to Australia I couldn't read and I couldn't write. Now writing is like food for my soul.

I am also part of the Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe. We tell our stories of survival on stage. The stories are very painful but we want to share them to help other people with their own past. I want them to think if she can do it, I can too.

I want people like me who are reading or listening to my story to feel emotion. African people don't cry much, but here people get quite emotional. I can't change what happened to me, but I can help others realise they are ready to fight and move on. Because you can't run away from your past. It follows you. I want to give people courage to move forward with their life. That's my dream.

This year I will be at ACU's Strathfield Campus studying a Bachelor of International Development Studies. Back home there are few women who are educated, so expectations are little. If I had dreamed my dreams there people would have thought I'm crazy. But when I came here I knew everything was possible in this country if you work hard."

© Australian Catholic University. All rights reserved. 2015.
Insight Magazine Issue 13 - Autumn 2015

Learn more:

Contact ACU:

Associate Professor Peter Howard
National Leader, Beyond Disadvantage/National Leader, Clemente Australia
Institute for Advancing Community Engagement
E: peter.howard@acu.edu.au
T: +61 2 9701 4318

Catherine Metcalfe
Clemente Australia National Student and Liaison Officer
Institute for Advancing Community Engagement
E: jun.he@acu.edu.au
T: +61 2 9701 4442

Helen McLucas
Project Manager, Planning, Policy and Systems
Institute for Advancing Community Engagement
E: helen.mclucas@acu.edu.au
T: +61 2 9701 4176

IACE Campus Community Engagement Contacts

Ms Janine Quine
Community Engagement Facilitator
Institute for Advancing Community Engagement
T: +61 7 3623 7768

Fitzroy and Ballarat
Mary Campbell
Relations Coordinator
Institute for Advancing Community Engagement
T: +61 3 9953 3381
E: mary.campbell@acu.edu.au

Strathfield and North Sydney
Daniel Nelson
Community Engagement Facilitator
Institute for Advancing Community Engagement
T: +61 2 9701 4432
E: daniel.nelson@acu.edu.au or iace@acu.edu.au