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.
"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.
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.
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."