A Recruiter Offers the Humanities, and Second Chances

An unlikely audience has filled a dozen chairs. There’s a 40-year-old man who spent most of his adult life in prison, a 29-year-old woman who recently gave up booze, a middle-aged guy who lost his job and everything else years ago when, he says, his mind just went “kablooey.” For the next few minutes, they’re all prospective college students.

Each of them is a regular here at the local office of Chrysalis, a nonprofit group that helps poor and homeless people find jobs. This morning Kathryn Pope has come to visit. Each summer she recruits in places most admissions counselors never see. Shelters. Community centers. Rehab clinics. Adult day schools. Wherever men and women are trying to loose the knots of the past.

Ms. Pope, 34, introduces herself as the director of Antioch University’s Bridge Program, which provides free humanities courses to low-income adults. Unlike programs that offer training for low-level jobs, Bridge was designed to impart academic skills.

Few, if any, members of her audience, Ms. Pope knows, have heard of the institution, about eight miles away, in Culver City. And she knows that they may have doubts. If you happen to lack a degree, a paycheck, and a computer, you might question what Socrates or Shakespeare, Anne Sexton or the Cubists, could ever do for you.

So, at each stop, Ms. Pope, a writing instructor at Antioch, must tell a story about the benefits of a liberal-arts education. To those with little or no college experience, she describes what nine months of learning might help them find. A field that interests them, perhaps. Some confidence. A voice. “I’m very careful not to define success just in academic terms,” she says.

The Bridge Program, which began in 1999, steeps students in art, literature, and philosophy, and requires them to take three writing courses. Participants earn up to 15 credits over three quarters. Antioch pays for their tuition, books, and supplies; at each class students receive bus tokens and meal vouchers for the campus cafe.

Nearly 500 students have completed the program. Many later enroll in community colleges, four-year institutions, or professional schools. A handful have gone on to graduate schools.

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