For many Australians education is something taken for granted but for people who experience disadvantage and social isolation attending university can seem like something from a fantasy novel. The good news is that through initiatives such as the Australian Catholic University’s Clemente Australia program that fantasy is becoming a reality.
The Australian Catholic University (ACU) describes Clemente Australia as a ground-breaking university course for people who are experiencing multiple disadvantage and social isolation who would normally struggle to access university education.
Over a two-year period students study the humanities subjects such as history, literature, ethics and art. Participation in Clemente aims to enhance the development of stronger social and other networks, formal and informal, along with increasing resilience. Other stated benefits include increased self-esteem, more structured lives, and an opportunity to exercise the intellect and imagination. Through greater social interaction and focused reflection the students become agents in their re-engagement with society.
Student fees are covered by ACU, and those who successfully complete four units are awarded a Certificate in Liberal Studies by ACU. For some, the achievement of studying at a University level when they have been living on the edge of society can be truly transformative as one student explains.
“People see that I have a brain because I have done a university unit. I am back in society”, says a Clemente student.
Lecturers deliver university level education in community locations, rather than at the university campus, where students’ education, welfare and health issues are best supported through their normal access to professional welfare and the range of supports they need. Classes are also kept small with just 15 – 20 students in each group and the focus of the lessons is on open discussion and hearing the voices and opinions of the students. Paramount to the program is an emphasis on values of respect and acceptance through non-judgemental teaching approach.
Since 2003, more than 500 Australians experiencing multiple disadvantage have enrolled in Clemente Australia and many, upon completion, have used it as a pathway to further education, employment and community participation.
The partnership of the different stakeholders, including students, community agencies, universities, business and community is a key component to ensuring the availability of the program. Clemente engages directly with the community through the services of organisations like The Footpath Library’s.
Mark Mahony who worked as a library technician at ACU’s Strathfield campus volunteers for The Footpath Library as Warehouse Library Manager in Sydney and saw a perfect link between the two organisations. The Footpath Library and Clemente “give the most disadvantaged people dignity and hope and facilitate the full expression of the human person,” says Mark.
Mark played an instrumental role establishing a partnership between Clemente Australia and The Footpath Library as well as ensuring that information about the program was provided to The Footpath Library’s hostel clients.
The social benefits of education are clear with ongoing research confirms the role of education as being valuable in itself as well as a means to effect change in the lives of people experiencing multiple disadvantage and social isolation. However, the program also has economic benefits. According to recent evaluation of the program after one year, the students reported a decrease in both overall health and justice costs. In fact, the analysis found potential savings of $14, 624 per annum to the community for every student who participated which is nearly three times the amount to deliver the program.
However the largest benefits of the program can best be summed up Clemente student, Suzanne who wrote the following:
“I have learnt to trust people a lot more…. Young people have reached out to me so much …that my confidence has grown. They don’t see me as different so I feel more part of this world and academic environment…. It’s really exciting to see people respond, some of whom I would have been afraid of six months ago…. Right now I am the most happy I have been in a long time. No one can tell I have a serious mental illness…. I can kiss mental illness goodbye really. I’m swapping it for an Arts Degree. Nobody judges me. Why would they? I’m at ACU studying for a degree…. Uni gives my life a richness and sense of connectedness and equity that I couldn’t get any other way.”
Further information about Clemente Australia is available via the ACU website – www.clementeaustralia.acu.edu.au