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Bringing the Humanities to Portland

By Romel Hernandez on May 16, 2011 04:53 PM

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Shanaquewa Finney admits the reason she signed up for the class was because the flyer advertised that it was free.

"That caught my attention. So I said, 'Let's see what this is about.'"

Shanaquewa didn't know much about Reed aside from singing once on campus with her church choir and encountering a group of students who were painted blue from head to toe, but otherwise very friendly.

Soon after starting classes, she was plunging into spirited discussions with her classmates about Plato and Aristotle. "I could completely relate to Plato," said Shanaquewa, a church receptionist and mother of six. "He said you have a choice between dark and light -- you could stay in the dark and be ignorant, or you step forth into the light... I took that personally."

In April, she and 14 other students graduated from the Humanity in Perspective program in an intimate and inspiring commencement ceremony at the Vollum Center.

A partnership between Reed and Oregon Humanities, HIP offers low-income students an opportunity to study literature, history, and philosophy with top college professors. The program was inspired by the acclaimed Clemente Course in the Humanities started at Bard College, and modeled on Hum 110.

Shanaquewa became a mother at 14 and dropped out of high school in Denver soon after: "I went to school, but I didn't go to school -- if that makes sense." She has endured ups and downs raising a family, and recently decided, at the age of 37, that God wanted her to go to college. She aims to better herself, her family and her community. Currently a full-time student at Portland Community College, Shanaquewa is studying psychology and considering a career in counseling. The HIP course has been the highlight of her college experience so far.

"I never realized how important my voice can be," she said. "I used to think what it didn't matter what you say, people were going to do what they were going to do.... I feel now that my voice is being heard, that it touches people and makes a difference."

The course introduces students to writers and thinkers ranging from Thucydides to Tocqueville, Emerson to Malcolm X. As in Hum 110, students write papers and engage in class discussions over the two-semester program. "HIP offers a time to reflect on the world around us and our own lives and choices," says Jennifer Allen, director of programs for Oregon Humanities. "This course engages students with the humanities, which are really a critical part of the human experience and part of being an informed and engaged citizen."

The HIP program opens eyes for professors, too. Professor Pancho Savery [English & humanities, 1995-] says the students bring a wealth of experiences and perspectives quite different from those of the 18-21 year olds he typically teaches.

"When these students bring those life experiences into the classroom, I really find it enriches the conversation," says Savery, who has taught the course since its inception because it keeps him connected to the community. Other Reed professors who teach the course include William Diebold [art history, 1987-] David Garrett [history, 1998-] and Margot Minardi [history, 2007-].

About one third of HIP students are people of color and the average annual income is just over $9,000. Students are given free tuition, books, bus passes and stipends for child care. In the ten years since it was started, HIP has enrolled 285 students ranging in age from 18 to 65.

Savery hopes that his students gain insight into their role and responsibilities in our greater society: "I believe that this course can give people the skills they need to go out and participate in the democratic process."

HIP is designed to do just that by exploring themes such as the individual in society, the nature of love and desire, and the relationship between power and justice. Oregon Humanities analyzed several years of student evaluations and found that graduates demonstrate marked increases in civic and political engagement, as well as improved critical thinking and writing skills.

Shanaquewa made a point of bringing her four youngest children to the HIP graduation ceremony. She wanted them to witness what her mother had achieved, and why it mattered.

Poet and essayist Kim Stafford delivered the commencement address, engaging the crowd with wry anecdotes and a poem he composed for the occasion titled "Know Thyself":

When you become a scholar
a book can be your friend
whispering good counsel
deep into the night...
Now you are the seeker
hearing with new ears,
seeing with new eyes,
reading the world's code...
Now time is your friend.
The days open one by one.

Following the ceremony, a beaming Shanaquewa clutched her certificate and attempted to gather up her well-behaved children. All around, graduates exchanged hugs and posed for photos. "I have a long way to go," she said. "But this class opened my eyes to a lot of things."