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Teen Moms in Poverty Take Free College Courses

The free Clemente Course allows low-income students to discover the humanities for college credit.

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Many teenage mothers who have dropped out of high school and live in poverty likely have their hands full providing for their children. Pondering the ideas of ancient philosophers and writing essays about art history may be low on the priority list for many of them. But that's what teenage mothers and other women living in poverty do twice a week at The Care Center in Holyoke, Mass., as students of The Clemente Course in the Humanities.

The course, named after baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente, was developed in 1995 in New York to teach college-level humanities courses to people living in poverty. Students who may not have otherwise been able to afford college courses learn about moral philosophy, literature, history, art history, critical thinking, and writing for free in classes taught by instructors from nearby universities.

Now the Clemente Course is offered in a 28-week format at about 20 organizations across the country, such as the Utah Humanities Council and Trident Technical College in Charleston, S.C. The students at the Care Center in Holyoke are women who live in poverty, several of whom are teenage mothers. Forty percent of Clemente Course students at the Care Center are Latina, 30 percent African-American, and 30 percent Anglo.

The Clemente Course begins with classes on writing—a subject the students should be most familiar with from their prior educational experiences. Then the course progresses into the more abstract content, such as philosophy. Upon completion of the course, these women receive six transferable college credits. At the Care Center, about 80 percent of Clemente Course students go on to college.

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But when Anne Teschner, executive director of the Care Center, introduced the Clemente Course in 1999, she questioned whether the young women would be interested in the humanities, let alone continue on to college.

"For teen mothers, who are working with a lot of obstacles and many, many demands, will there be room for reading Socrates? ... Will there be a native interest in learning?" she asks. "What we have found, 13 years later, is yes, they are profoundly intellectually hungry."

The harsh experience of being young, having children, and living in poverty often leads women to question the meaning of life and their role in it, Teschner says. So reading the ideas of Plato, Socrates, or Martin Luther King Jr. is often quite relevant to them.

Students in the Clemente Course "get a sense of history, and need to know how to debate in a civilized way and analyze policy," Teschner says.

The writing block of the Clemente Course reassures students that they are "part of the human experience," says Teschner. And with that role, she notes, students learn that they need to communicate effectively.

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This spring, Clemente Course students at the Care Center will transition to art history—a subject that is sometimes initially daunting to students, Teschner says.

"It's been great to watch students take a deep breath and face material that at first glance looks really foreign," she says. But that basic, human need to learn helps them manage the coursework, she adds—and that need for knowledge doesn't discriminate.

"One of the ideas that we learned pretty quickly is that people in poverty and people of means need the same things," Teschner says. "Everyone has an intellectual hunger."

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