When she lost her job in a company downsizing, Marissa Flores Machado had no idea what was next. She didn't expect to find herself spending two evenings a week seated around a table discussing Socrates, Shakespeare and Frederick Douglass.
Machado had left school in the 10th grade when pregnant with her first child. She went on to raise four daughters and advance in her 25-year career with a home health care company. She'd always considered herself too short of either time or money to return to school.
Then she heard about the Free Minds Project, a free humanities course for adults living on low to moderate incomes. She applied immediately.
"I spent all of my life working really hard to take make sure I could provide for my daughters and take care of them," says Machado, 48. "So the idea that I was going to have an opportunity to go to school was beyond my dreams. It gave me the feeling I was really going to move forward."
Since August she and her classmates have studied literature, history, philosophy, theatre and writing. On Monday, May 19, Machado will be one of 18 students honored at the second annual Free Minds graduation ceremony.
A program of the Humanities Institute at The University of Texas at Austin, in partnership with Austin Community College (ACC) and Foundation Communities, Free Minds offers a two-semester course for adults living at or near the federal poverty level. Those who complete the program earn six credit hours from ACC.
"Many programs for adults focus on skills training, but Free Minds opens doors to the life of the mind," says Vivé Griffith, who directs the program for the Humanities Institute. "Students come to the classroom with a wealth of experience. They bring the insight and energy that experience affords them to invigorate works like 'Macbeth' or Plato's 'Republic.'"
Free Minds students range in age from their 20s to their 50s. Most are parents, many work full-time, and some have faced significant barriers to education, including having been incarcerated or homeless. Some, like Machado, had never set foot in a college classroom. Others had attempted college and were forced to leave.
Aaliyah Noble-Alexander is one of the latter. At 24, she's the youngest in her Free Minds class, and mother to three-year-old Quintin. Noble-Alexander was college-bound when she finished high school. She graduated early and set off for Temple University in Philadelphia. She didn't stay.
"I feel like I rushed everything," she says. "I rushed through high school, rushed into college and didn't plan. I didn't know how to pay for school, and I left."
After returning to Austin she floated awhile, picking up jobs and becoming, as she called it, "the girl on the couch." Shortly after she learned she was pregnant with Quintin, Quintin's father was sent to prison to serve an eight-year sentence.
Noble-Alexander rose to the occasion. She found a job at YouthLaunch, an organization that creates service programs for young people, where she is now a program specialist. She focused on raising her son while maintaining her relationship with his father, who will be released next year. And she applied to Free Minds.
Being in Free Minds has changed not only her experience of her job and her life, Noble-Alexander says, but it has also affected her relationship with her husband.
"He says, 'You've changed so much since you've been in that class!'" Noble-Alexander says. "Before the class I couldn't really communicate with him. Since I've been in the class our conversations have been a lot more deep. We raise questions in class and I can raise them with him and see that he's a really deep thinker, too."
Deep thinking, self-reflection and improved communication are hallmarks of the Free Minds experience because the class is far from a typical entry-level session. It's run as a seminar, with students seated around a table. Top-notch faculty from The University of Texas at Austin and ACC lead students in discussion. The curriculum is challenging, but the environment is supportive.
"Adult students have to juggle complex lives when returning to school," Griffith says. "They may have families, full-time jobs, aging parents. Some of our students have long commutes. Some have faced difficult circumstances, such as evictions or serious illness."
Free Minds aims to remove as many obstacles as possible from a student's experience. Books, materials and tuition are provided by the program. Classes are held at a learning center run by Foundation Communities. Transportation assistance is available. Students with children receive free child care, and kids age five and up take part in an educational program by Camp Fire USA while their parents are in class.
With those obstacles pushed aside, the conversation around the Free Minds table is inevitably lively. For faculty members, it can be a treat to work with nontraditional students.
"Free Minds has provided, over the last year, some of my most stimulating teaching experiences," says Dr. Jill Dolan, who holds the Zachary T. Scott Family Chair in Drama in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Dolan and Dr. Stacy Wolf co-taught the Free Minds theatre unit.
"Because of the students' commitment to the material and to the project of engaging the arts and humanities, our conversations were always invested, the stakes very high. What a gift to teach students from whom I also get to learn so much."
As a program of the Humanities Institute, Free Minds reflects the institute's commitment to forging connections between the university and the larger community. In its many community programs, including Living Newspapers and the Mayor's Book Club, the Humanities Institute seeks to engage people of every background in intellectual inquiry and a shared exploration of human life.
"We believe that studying the humanities is in itself important," Griffith says. "It promotes critical thinking and builds communication skills. Free Minds students find the class offers space to reflect on their lives and put them into a larger context.
"It's one thing to sit in a classroom and it's another thing to read an Adrienne Rich poem and then reconsider your family's experience of immigration or to explore the 'American Dream' while staging scenes from 'Death of a Salesman.'"
The class can also serve as a jumpstart for students who want to return to college. Of the 15 students who graduated in 2007, nine went on to start work toward their degrees at ACC. This year's students have applied to ACC, St. Edward's University's New College and Huston-Tillotson University.
Janice Powell, 34, plans to graduate from Free Minds and complete her enrollment paperwork for college in the same week. Joining her at her meeting with an ACC academic adviser will be her 17-year-old daughter Christina, who graduates from high school in June.
"What kept me going in the program was teaching my kids that continuing education is important," says Powell, a mother of four. "Christina saw how hard I worked to go back to school, and she said, 'Mom, I want to go to school with you next year.'"
Modeling the importance of education to their children is a key motivation for many students. Students also say the impact of Free Minds filters through various aspects of their lives.
Noble-Alexander has strengthened her resolve toward community service, working to build capacity at nonprofits, bring recycled household items to home economics classrooms and make fresh vegetables available to prisons.
Machado says her Free Minds experience accompanies her to the office. A few months after joining Free Minds, Machado started a job with the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services. A few months later she applied for a promotion and persuaded the hiring manager she was the right person for the job.
"It had a lot to do with the confidence I gained through Free Minds," she says. "My mind works better than it used to. It reaches out more than it did before.
"Free Minds has empowered me with the tools and confidence to move forward. Not only that, but it has given me the nerve to speak up and out loud, to voice my ideas, no matter how insignificant they may seem. I have gained an incredible amount of courage."