BY CRAIG KAPITAN
With her voice quavering, Mardi Sines described what her first Stanford course, taught by instructors Scotty McLennan and Elisabeth Hansot during Winter Quarter, meant to her.
"I am part of the human race," she said, the realization seeming to come as a complete surprise. "I have the capabilities of everyone else, if I put my mind to it. This class really made it come true for me."
Many new Stanford students have their share of insecurities. But Sines -- a 45-year-old recovering alcoholic and drug addict who had a choice of either taking this class or finishing out a yearlong sentence at San Mateo County Jail -- isn't a typical student.
For the past quarter, she has joined 15 other women in a Continuing Studies course on the humanities at Hope House, a residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Redwood City. Sponsored by the Ethics in Society Program, Stanford Continuing Studies and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, the course's immediate aim is simple: to teach these nontraditional students about great philosophers such as Plato and Sophocles. But for many participants, both students and instructors, the results have been more profound.
From left, students Tina Wiltz, Ruby Atnip and Pamela Collins, Dean for Religious Life Scotty McLennan, student Precious Hammonds Barbie, Senior Lecturer in Political Science Elisabeth Hansot and student Jacqueline Hoskins met for their weekly class in a living room at Hope House, a rehabilitation center in Redwood City. Photo: L.A. Cicero
For Sines, who never graduated from high school because she was "too busy getting loaded," the class gave her a newfound sense of self-esteem and dignity.
"It opened an avenue in my life that I never had before," she said. "I was always very defensive -- 'You better listen to my opinion.' This really allowed me to be able to listen to somebody else, and maybe incorporate that into my own philosophies."
Working for the miracle
On a shelf in the small living room where the women gather for class each week sits a small picture frame. Within it are words of encouragement: "Don't quit before the miracle."
The struggle not to quit is a dominant theme at Hope House, where women with drug problems in San Mateo County often are sent after finding themselves in trouble with the law. The nonprofit organization was started in 1990 in an effort to help decrease the number of women returning to jail because of drug problems. Up to 16 women at a time -- some with infants in tow -- stay for a six-month period.
"We really try to teach them abstinence, but we look at the total woman," explained Hope House Director Karen Francone. "We teach the women responsibility, boundaries."
Starting at 6 a.m., each day is filled with chores, 12-step meetings and mandatory classes such as infant massage, parenting education, anger management and HIV/AIDS awareness. Last spring, at the urging of philosophy Associate Professor Debra Satz and Rob Reich, assistant professor of political science, Stanford offered to add its Hope House Scholars course to the load.
"This is pretty unique," Francone said, explaining that even though the course is conducted on a college level, some women have only an eighth grade education. The women meet with the instructors, who rotate every quarter, once a week and with student tutors on one other day. It is the only course at Hope House for which they are given additional time for homework.
"Stanford has really challenged them to look inside and see the big picture," Francone said. "Recovery is a lot about choices. Staying clean and sober can be gone in a second if you don't make the right choice. I kind of look at what they learn in this class as helping them make overall choices."
The fact that the coursework isn't softened -- students receive 2 units of credit from Stanford Continuing Studies that can be used toward a degree at Cañada College -- also benefits the participants, Francone said.
"They never thought they could take a Stanford class for credit," she explained. "When they see they can do something they didn't think they could do before, it gives them kind of concrete evidence that they can do other things, like stay clean and sober."
Even though for most participants taking the Stanford course is obligatory, many seem enthusiastic about it. Several students even cite the class with helping motivate them to pursue goals beyond staying sober.
"I tell pretty much everybody that I meet about this class," said Kathirene Soriano, a 30-year-old single mother of four and recovering crack addict. "This past weekend what made me feel good was writing my final paper. It was the highlight of my week."
Having suffered through "every type of abuse" as a child and an adult, Soriano was involved with gangs and drugs from a young age. She had been to prison four times and has been trying to get sober since 1995. Hope House was her 10th program, and at one point she contemplated dropping out. But thinking about what she had accomplished during her stay and how much she enjoyed the class helped her to stick with the program, she said. Last month she celebrated one year of sobriety. Although she completed the Hope House program before the course ended, Soriano voluntarily returned every week to participate in the discussions.
In addition to college credit, each student is awarded a voucher to take another Continuing Studies course -- this time on campus. Soriano said she will use hers, but she also has bigger plans. Within the next year, she hopes to enroll at the College of San Mateo to work toward a certificate in Alcohol and Other Drug Studies. With that certification, she can become a drug counselor and help "give back," she said.
"This class gave me an opportunity to find out how college was," she said. "It gave me a whole lot inside. Those are opportunities that I would never have gotten."
An impractical idea
Stanford has taught the Hope House Scholars course for three quarters now, but it wasn't the first institution to sponsor such an endeavor. The idea was hatched in New York City in 1995 by novelist and journalist Earl Shorris. Enlisting the help of Bard College, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, he began the Clemente Course in the Humanities. Described as an "experiment in education," his theory was that self-reflection through studying the humanities could help the long-term poor step out of poverty.
It started with 30 students recruited from settlement houses, drug rehabilitation centers and neighborhood centers. Several were homeless or had been to prison. One student died from AIDS before the first course was completed.
"Most people who heard about the experiment thought it was foolish," Shorris wrote in an article for the online humanities magazine PORT. "They considered it impractical. The rule for the poor, as for most of the rest of America, was to be educated in practical things."
But giving people training without a foundation in the humanities is like building a house of cards, he believes; without the ability to think reflectively, people will remain in poverty.
Of the first class, 17 students finished and 14 earned college credit. Of those students, Shorris reported several years later, nine went on to enroll in four-year colleges and one entered nursing school.
"Education was to teach the students in the Clemente Course to use their rational powers to think, to enjoy beauty," Shorris wrote. "The purpose of the humanities for them, as for anyone else, was to bring out their innate humanity."
More than a dozen Clemente Courses have spread to Washington, Florida and Alaska, as have spinoffs such as the Hope House Scholars.
Teaching the teacher
On a Thursday morning in February, instructors Scotty McLennan and Elisabeth Hansot read aloud an excerpt of Sophocles' Antigone. In a gender reversal, McLennan, dean for religious life, read the part of Antigone, while Hansot, senior lecturer emerita in political science, read the part of Creon.
The Rev. Scotty McLennan, dean for religious life, passed back homework at the end of a Hope House Scholars class. It is the only program at Hope House for which students are given additional time for homework. Photo: L.A. Cicero
When they were finished, the transfixed class offered a spontaneous round of applause. After the class, both instructors smiled as they recalled the moment. In the course of teaching the class, both say they have noticed an "eagerness to learn" and "excitement about the learning process" that transcends that of the average undergraduate classroom.
"I think these students are extraordinarily generous," Hansot said. "There is a welcome and an energy there that is energizing." The fact that several students, like Soriano, have returned to the class voluntarily even though their stay at Hope House has ended, only adds to that claim, Hansot added. "That's like having your students say, 'Hey, can we have an extra session?'"
In addition to Hansot, McLennan, Reich and Satz, others who have taught the class have been Krista Lawlor, assistant professor of philosophy, and Suzanne Greenberg, a lecturer in the Program in Structured Liberal Education. The course has been a learning experience for the instructors as well as the students, Hansot and McLennan agreed.
"The perspectives are so different than what you'd get in a normal Stanford classroom," McLennan said. "It really enlarges your understanding of the text and its relevance to real life."
For example, when the class studied the classic ethics question, "Should one person be sacrificed for the good of the many?" the students immediately identified with the one who would be sacrificed.
"There are two texts used in the class -- the text we bring and the texts of their lives," Hansot said. "The intersection of the two is what makes this class so unique."
Another benefit is the satisfaction gained from volunteering outside the confines of campus. "It's important to have Stanford go out into the community and not wait for the community to come in," Hansot said.
"That's what a university should be," McLennan agreed.
After three successful quarters, the program has a fairly long list of instructors signed up to volunteer with the course. Some, like Hansot, plan to repeat their involvement. But as the program continues to be molded, it will need other help as well, she stressed.
At the graduation banquet last month, both she and McLennan offered to personally mentor any student who decides to take more courses. "I feel strongly that they need that support," Hansot said, explaining that she is pushing for the program to formally incorporate mentoring for students who continue their education. "The responsible thing to do is to make funding available so that student tutors can follow up with the Hope House students, but I worry that funding may not be available."
Before the program can expand, however, it first must grapple with more basic needs. Right now it has no budget and no secure funding set for next year, said program director Nicole Sanchez. "We are rather worried about its existence," she admitted.
Beyond a dream
Sines, whose voice shakes when she describes her pride at passing a Stanford course, is one of those women who wants to continue her education past Hope House. That's saying a lot, considering what her outlook was before taking the class.
Growing up in what she describes as an abusive family with an addict mother, she became one herself at a very young age as a way to escape. "I just stayed medicated my whole life," she explained. Then, last year, she was sent to San Mateo County Jail for possession of heroin; there she eventually was given the option of finishing her sentence at Hope House.
"I had no idea what it was going to be like," she said of learning she would be enrolled in the Stanford course. "But I didn't think anyone [at Hope House] was capable of doing that."
Since then, Sines' viewpoint has changed. She hopes Hansot will be her mentor as she explores education outside of Hope House.
"It gave me a whole new outlook on the capability of humankind and the inner struggle of human beings," she said. "[It showed me] how much I limited my perceptions. It was exhilarating and exciting. I can see a future now.
"It's beyond a dream come true. I feel like a butterfly drawn from a cocoon."
Those who wish to donate to or volunteer with the Hope
House Scholars program should contact Nicole Sanchez at (650)
'The perspectives are so different. It really enlarges your
understanding of the text and its relevance to real life,' McLennan
Stanford Report, April 3, 2002