ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 3, Summer 2011

Choosing to hope

Choosing to hope

It’s a university course for Australians experiencing multiple disadvantage, and it’s changing lives. Alisse Grafitti spoke to students and researchers in the Clemente Australia program.

Daniel Smith has always had a passion for learning, but a battle with depression and self-esteem meant he was often unemployed and drifting. Not these days, however. Daniel has already completed one ACU course and is now half way through a Bachelor of Arts at the University’s Strathfield Campus.

The 40-year-old is just one of the Clemente Australia students whose life has been turned around by the ground breaking program.

Modeled on a successful initiative in the USA, Clemente provides accredited university courses for people struggling with homelessness, mental illness and long-term unemployment.

Its effectiveness was revealed recently in a new study, which showed significant improvements in health, housing, financial and social outlooks among participants.

The survey also demonstrated that these students are often dealing with extremely complex issues while they study. Seventy-nine per cent have experienced homelessness, and 87 per cent are on government pensions or benefits.

Associate Professor Peter Howard, ACU’s National Leader of Clemente Australia, said the course’s impact on the students was immediate and profound.

“This university program is transformational in nature in that it brings about new learning opportunities and new futures for people,” he said. “Clemente is only possible through the collaboration and the will of organisations to look for new educational pathways for people experiencing multiple disadvantages.”

The original Clemente course was offered in 1997 at a community centre in New York City, and provided free tertiary-level humanities education for disadvantaged adults.

In 2003, ACU, in collaboration with the St Vincent de Paul Society and with financial assistance from the Sisters of Charity and Sydney City Council, offered the first Australian Clemente program in East Sydney. It has since been established in cities right around Australia.

Professor Jude Butcher, Director of ACU’s Institute for Advancing Community Engagement, said the basis of Clemente is that the way out of poverty is about giving people access to more than just a wage or a roof over their heads – it is about choosing hope and having a new sense of one’s identity and capabilities.

“It’s about engaging them in activities that lead to social interaction, learning and community participation,” he said. “Similarly, Clemente is also not about training people for a job, as work itself isn’t always the way to break the cycle of poverty.

“Rather, humanities subjects are taught because it is topics like ethics and philosophy which allow students to reflect on the world and their place in it. It empowers them to examine and question circumstances, and engage with their community.”

ACU academics teach the classes in a community setting, where students feel more comfortable, and Daniel is one of 18 graduates of the program now enrolled in undergraduate degrees at ACU.

“I had never considered uni because I didn’t have a great academic record, and then a friend told me about Clemente,” he said.

“I felt life was very limited up until then, and I was floundering to find the right path.

“Clemente has given me direction and the tools to achieve my dreams, and I hope in the future to be able to work as an artist.”

Study results

66% were satisfied with their life shortly after starting the program, 76% by the end.
51% were satisfied with their health after starting the program, 65% by the end.
60% were feeling part of the community after starting the program, 76% by the end.
12% were satisfied with their financial situation after starting the program, 27% by the end.
24% were satisfied with their housing situation after starting the program, 36% by the end.

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