VIU's Clemente Course Breaks Down Barriers

(Photo provided by Carly Eldstrom) Adaline Russell was 64-years-old when she started her educational journey at VIU by taking the Clemente Course in 2008. She walked across the Port Theatre stage this June to accept her BA in Liberal Studies from VIU Chancellor Louise Mandell and VIU President Ralph Nilson.

August 31, 2016 - 1:15pm

Program opens doors to post-secondary educational opportunities for non-traditional students

The Clemente Course is a rigorous, university level course that’s been breaking down educational barriers at Vancouver Island University (VIU) 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, The 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.

Since its inception many Clemente students choose to continue their education but Pepper-Smith says not everyone who takes the course continues in school, nor are they expected to. He says quite simply, Clemente brings together a community seeking truth.

“We challenge students to consider deep theoretical and political ideologies and ask them to debate their opinions, which is incredibly empowering,” said Pepper-Smith. “Through this process they see that not only do they belong at the table they can articulate where they think society should go.”

Pepper-Smith hasn’t settled on a complete reading list for the upcoming CLEM 100 class that gets underway Sept. 7, but he says Socrates is always a favourite.

“Clemente students love Socrates because he was willing to question people in power. Through rational debate he shows us that people in power often have no idea of what constitutes happiness. His emphasis is on the pursuit of happiness and rational self-examination of what’s good in life and for us that is always a good place to start,” said Pepper-Smith.

Russell completed Clemente 100 and 101 and didn’t stop there. She took a special interest in social justice issues and went on to excel in sociology, anthropology and even got involved in applied theatre courses at VIU’s Cowichan campus where she and her classmates wrote and performed an anti-racism play for the Nanaimo Multicultural Festival. This June at her graduation ceremony she walked across the Port Theatre stage to cheers from her family who watched her receive her Bachelor of Arts degree.

Russell called it one of the proudest moments in her life so when she heard there were still a few spots available for this September’s CLEM 100 class she had a special message to share with the people who are thinking about taking the course.  

“I tried throughout my life to go back to school and finally did it. I was 64 when I signed up for the Clemente class so to everyone I say it’s never too late,” said Russell adding with a laugh, “And believe me when I say, if you do decide to go back you never know what you may discover.”   



Dane Gibson, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

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Tags: Student Success

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