Education and learning can pave a road to personal growth and a brighter future, by opening doors that lead to new opportunities. But what happens when those doors are found sealed and locked? What happens when past experiences stop future ambitions? For many, furthering their education is no longer an expectation, and hope for a brighter future is clouded.
However, a light has been provided for those that have fought a battle too large to overcome by themselves. St. Mary’s University in Calgary provides a Humanities 101 program that offers free humanities courses to adults experiencing addiction recovery, poverty, immigration challenges, homelessness and other disruptions in furthering their education.
Bringing together a diverse group, students in the program study Literature, History, Music, Cultural Studies, Philosophy and Art History. They are introduced to distinct cultures, sharing in stories that help shape their personal worldviews. Understanding different walks in life has always been a strength in Canadian culture, bringing people together in ways that encourage growth of an accepting community. St. Mary’s Humanities 101 program is a fine example of Canadian values, lending a hand where one is reaching out.
Many students in the program have spent many long years scraping away at the walls dividing them from a world of opportunity. Gathering stories along their journey, they come together in Humanities 101 to share experiences that grew from poverty, misfortune, and often times, life events that humble the individual while delivering wisdom. From harrowing immigration journeys, to stories of addiction and health struggles, there is not an individual in the program who has not overcome unimaginable odds to continue onward toward new goals.
Eddie Al Sammarraie, a charismatic, determined graduate whose poor health has long stood in his way, surmounted the barriers to find his footing in life, once again.
“The program touches your heart before it gets to your brain,” Al Sammarraie says with a big smile. His statement reflects how the course brings together the ethics of caring while maintaining a strong academic approach.
To qualify for the program, applicants must be “ready, willing and able to commit to attending all classes and completing course work.” With this commitment set from the start, a proud work ethic found in each individual is at the centre of the drive for success. Having a staff wholly committed to the achievements of the participants fosters an atmosphere that many involved have not experienced before. Guest speakers from other post secondary institutions in Calgary and past Humanities 101 students that have gone on to prosper in their field are invited to speak and share their stories of inspiration. These presentations encourage the new students along their journey.
Encouragement and inspiration is in no short supply. Sabrina Buzzalino, the program’s coordinator, along with Dr. Lourdes Arciniega, Dr. Tara Hyland-Russell, Malcolm Edwards and others go far beyond their role as instructors, and have become sources of inspiration that have changed the lives and futures of individuals in the program. A chemistry that far surpasses the usual student/professor relationship encourages the participants to be the finest versions of themselves. Dr. Arciniega speaks highly of her own personal learning experiences, working alongside a grateful and reborn group of individuals.
St. Mary’s recognizes the trials one undertakes while trying to accomplish the mission of furthering education, and that sometimes there are factors other than financial requirements that halt someone’s pursuit of education. Beyond the textbooks and tuition fees provided, St. Mary’s also provides participants with a nutritious meal before each class, making sure that they are well-fed, with one less concern on their mind. In a city the size of Calgary, it is not as easy for some to get from point A to B as it is for others. A single mother working a part time job has little to no time to be thinking about how she can provide herself with higher education. Juggling the reality of providing for family and working a low paying job, dreams that may have been achievable years ago have long passed. Sue Gwynn, a graduate from the program, understands the importance of showing her daughter that there are no walls high enough to enclose her desire for learning while simultaneously providing encouragement and aspiration for her family and friends. Gwynn shines as an example that it is never too late to “learn how to learn, all over again.”
For those that have found themselves in similar situations, the thought of bringing back to life the opportunities they once dreamed about seems impractical at best. St. Mary’s Humanities 101 program works with those that have found themselves in such situations. The program offers support in childcare costs and transportation. Everything that a student requires to attend class is provided to the best of St. Mary’s ability. As well, Friends of Humanities 101 is a student club at St. Mary’s that works to enhance the program’s fundraising efforts.
April 12, 2017 was the scene of a “Celebration of Learning” at McGivney Hall at St. Mary’s University, which featured dinner followed by a formal ceremony and presentation of certificates to students in the Humanities 101 program. It was an evening of laughter, gratitude and pride for the students and their families, and other supporters of the program in attendance.
Witnessing the joy on the faces of the students as they received their certificates was a moving experience for everyone. A number of the students later spoke to the audience about their time in the program.
Agada Cham, an immigrant from Sudan, called the classes “the greatest opportunity of my life”, and shared his dream of continuing his education to become a social worker.
Amina Oudghiri thanked the instructors for helping her “learn to think critically, and to reflect on my learning.”
Elizabeth Dop, mother of seven children, spoke about how the program “lifted me out of the water where I was drowning.” She called St. Mary’s “a garden” which feeds students’ bodies, minds and spirits.
With all the hands that reach out, students in the Humanities 101 program leave with a new outlook, and a new reality. By opening a door for these individuals, the program also gives them the courage to open other doors on their own. It provides a way of proudly proclaiming, “What I was I will forever carry with me, and what I will be has only begun.”
For more information about St. Mary’s University Humanities 101 program, visit www.stmu.ca/humanities-101
All photos courtesy of St. Mary’s University; Adam Bowen photographer