Free college-level courses offered to income-eligible residents

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Photo of non-traditional students in class.

The Humanities for Everybody program has room for more students.

KALAMAZOO—The Humanities for Everybody program, a partnership between Western Michigan University and two local community organizations, offers low- to moderate-income residents in Kalamazoo County indispensable tools and opportunities to engage in their communities and realize the full potential of education to transform their lives.

The program provides non-credit history, literature, philosophy and writing courses free of charge, giving non-traditional students access to rigorous university-level education in the humanities. Experienced WMU professors teach the discussion-style courses, and students receive free books, tuition and supplies.

Rondel D. Yarbrough, who has served as the program's coordinator since its inception, says the 2011-12 inaugural class included single mothers, homeless men, career-track employees, recovering addicts, and people with bachelor's degrees as well as those without high school diplomas.

"Our students may be non-traditional but they're eager to learn. Of the 12 students enrolled last year, 10 graduated. Now we're seeing a number of them moving forward in practical ways," Yarbrough says. "One man, who was essentially homeless, is now employed, and one young woman won a scholarship and started classes at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Also, two students have taken the GED test. One obtained high school equivalency while the other student has to retake the math component of the test in order to pass."

Still time to apply for 2012-13

Students are being continuously enrolled for the two-course, 10-week fall semester that began Sept. 10 and the three-course, 15-week spring semester that begins Jan. 14, 2013. The second fall course is set to start Monday, Oct. 22. Each course, or module, lasts five weeks and meets Mondays and Thursdays from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the Cooper Apartments, 611 W. Lovell St., Kalamazoo.

The 2012-13 academic year opened with the History of American Slavery course and will finish with the Shakespeare course Oct. 22 to Nov. 26. The upcoming spring semester will feature Freedom and Empowerment, Jan. 14 to Feb. 14; The Black Experience: From 1866 to the Present, Feb. 25 to March 28; and Philosophy, Justice and Well-being, April 1 to May 2.

Eight Kalamazoo County residents ranging in age from 22 to 53 are currently enrolled in the program, which can accept up to 15 students. Students are encouraged to complete all five courses and to participate in at least one community service project.

If vacancies due to attrition occur, community members are invited to fill the available spots. Those who graduate from the program receive letters of recommendation based on their class performance that can be used to obtain jobs, housing and other community resources.

Community partners launch program

Humanities for Everybody is the product of conversations begun in 2010 about Bard College's Clemente Course. The executive directors of Open Doors Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services and a KNHS AmeriCorps service member circulated the idea of offering a similar program in Kalamazoo. WMU's University Center for the Humanities joined the effort, and a team representing these organizations spent the next four months developing a concept and model.

Among other contributions, KNHS supports the efforts of Yarbrough, who works full time as the organization's client services specialist, while Open Doors is the fiscal agent and also provides the class space in Cooper Apartments, which it owns and manages. The University Center for the Humanities organizes volunteer faculty from WMU, and WMU's College of Arts and Sciences funds the graduate assistantship of LaTasha Chaffin, a full-time doctoral student who serves as the program's part-time coordinator.

"We have a backlog of about 30 professors who are eager to teach the courses," Yarbrough reports. "That says a lot about both the students and the instructors. For us, the bottom line is that education is for everybody."

Students of all ages are recruited from Kalamazoo County. To be eligible, they must demonstrate literacy at a level appropriate for the courses and, based on the number of people in their households, should have an annual income no greater than 150 percent of the poverty level.

Personal stories demonstrate program benefits

WMU's Chaffin says Humanities for Everybody seeks to promote mentoring and help students become more engaged locally, with enhanced interests in community participation, education and civic leadership. It also seeks to build self-esteem and provide accessible subject matter through which students can draw on their own life experiences to make meaningful connections and use this knowledge to make positive choices in their lives.

Kalamazoo resident TiAnna Harrison, a returning participant from last year, is one of several participants who say they found the program both reassuring and empowering.

"Having had a traumatic brain injury as a result of being involved in an accident with a drunk driver, I was unsure of how I would be able to fulfill my academic dreams," Harrison explains. "However, the small classes, one-on-one access to instructors and the level of encouragement in the program allowed me to move forward with my education in a non-traditional setting where there is a vested interest in my success. Maybe the non-traditional needs to become the traditional."

Humanities for Everybody's small classes allow professors and teaching assistants to give students specialized attention. These mentors as well as program staff members help students identify their career goals and pursue them. In the process, the students inspire their peers and others.

"We have a great group of motivated students who are representative of the community. They're diverse in educational attainment, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, gender and in their reasons for committing to such a rigorous voluntary program," Chaffin says.

She notes that some want to join or re-join a formal academic degree program. Others are motivated by intellectual curiosity, personal self-development and empowerment, or forming a support network.

For more information or an application, visit humanitiesforeverybody.com. Donations to the program are welcome; to donate, visit Open Doors Kalamazoo at opendoorskalamazoo.org or the University Center for the Humanities at wmich.edu/humanities.

Direct questions about Humanities for Everybody to Rondel Yarbrough at rondel@knhs.org or (269) 364-2532 or LaTasha Chaffin at latasha.y.chaffin@wmich.edu or (269) 387-1811.