University collaborates with Lifebridge to enable residents to earn college credits

Lifebridge residents receive transcripts

For several members of Salem’s Lifebridge community, spring semester 2012 marked the beginning of back to school. In what organizers believe is the first of its kind program in the United States, four residents of Lifebridge, Salem’s homeless shelter, completed all the requirements for Salem State University’s English 101 (composition) course during the semester. They were taught by visiting professor of English Julie Batten at the Lifebridge campus.

At ceremonies at the Margin Street shelter on August 1, their efforts were rewarded. Each received three college credits from Salem State. Two of the four are residents of Lifebridge’s permanent housing units, Seeds of Hope Housing, and two are residents of Lifebridge transitional housing.

The goal of the pilot collaborative between the university and Lifebridge was to find clients with both the intellectual and emotional capacity to undertake the rigors of college work with support from the university—and succeed. So as not to expose them to the risk of failure, there was a rigorous assessment of academic and emotional readiness before the cohort was selected.

The genesis? Jude Nixon, Salem State’s dean of arts and sciences, often witnessed Lifebridge residents enjoying morning coffee alongside him in Salem before he headed to work. Many were reading, some were journaling and others were writing poems. "What would happen,” he thought, “if we were able to provide these residents with an opportunity for formal education? Why couldn’t the university offer them a for-credit writing course? How might it change their lives?”  More importantly, he thought, how might it change us?

Remembering an old 60 Minutes segment that reported on Barnard College students working teaching incarcerated prisoners, Nixon recruited Julie Batten, whom he’d met through the Mass Poetry Festival, to teach English 101 at the shelter, Salem State’s administration signed off on the project and the course took place during the spring 2012 semester.

“I think it is fair to say,” said Batten, commenting on the program, “that all of the students without exception experienced some sort of awakening, a shift that has altered their path going forward. Moreover, the memoirs we read caused us all to revisit behaviors and circumstances that prompt homelessness; sitting with the emotional difficulty of that took a great deal of courage.

“The Fab Four, as the students came to call themselves, have jointly experienced everything from addiction to hoarding to depression, to issues with the law, loss of loved ones, jobs, and their personal dignity. They are Everyman, you and I, six degrees of separation only between them and the American dream to which we all aspire.”

The results have been heartening. One student, laid off from his job at 52 and unable to find work, saw his confidence unravel. As a result of the class, he has written 200 pages of a memoir that Batten believes will find a publisher within the next year. A second, a recovering alcoholic with a year of sobriety, will return to college in September. For all, the effort was extraordinarily freeing and has given them a new perspective on the way forward. The class, Julie Batten says, has given its participants something in which to invest themselves, an opportunity to believe in their own worth—and an opportunity to have a voice.

"This course offering has created an opportunity for folks who have never considered attending college to "test the waters" in an environment in which they feel safe,” says Mark Cote, Lifebridge’s executive director. “Now that the seed has been planted, there is no telling what the future holds for these newly created "active learners.”

Salem State University, established in 1854, is a comprehensive, public institution of higher learning located approximately 15 miles north of Boston, Massachusetts. The university enrolls 9,600 undergraduate and graduate students representing 33 states and nearly 70 nations, and is one of the largest state universities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Photo: The four Lifebridge residents who earned college credits from Salem State during the spring semester are congratulated by Jude Nixon, far left, dean of arts and sciences at the university, English professor Julie Batten, center,who taught the course, and Mark Cote, far right, executive director of Lifebridge.