Learning life lessons teaching prisoners

Rachel Melke

When Grand Valley State University student Katie Stefanek came to the university as a biology major, she almost immediately regretted her decision.

“I hated it,” Stefanek said.

While Stefanek was taking one of her general education classes, philosophy 101, she was introduced to a new opportunity and a new major through the GVSU program Community Working Classics, which takes learning to a new level.

Students involved with CWC began taking classic content — ethics, literature, philosophy, history, music, anatomy, math and many other disciplines — and teaching it to inmates of the Muskegon Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Mich., Although the facility has since closed, the program remains, working with students at Job Corps.

“I just knew it was something I had to do,” Stefanek said. “I wanted to do something more than just go to class.”

Against what her parents wished regarding her safety, Stefanek signed up for the class. Although she was very excited to begin, Stefanek was not sure what to expect.

“I was scared,” Stefanek said. “Not for my safety, but that I would make a fool of myself.”

Upon beginning the course, students meet with the professor and formulate a teaching plan. Each student gathers his or her own topics and texts to use.

When Stefanek began the course, her views were quickly transformed.

“I was amazed at how intelligent, how thoughtful, how kind, how polite, how positive and how hopeful they (her students) were,” Stefanek added.

When Stefanek was there, she taught about the Myth of Sisyphus, about perseverance in the midst of getting nothing in return. She asked the inmates what kept them going, to which she received the response, “because we know we can be better.”

She said knew they could be better too.

Another CWC student, Rachel Bendert, said working with those students challenged her own way of seeing the world, as well.

“The students made me think about what I stand for, and what my beliefs are,” Bendert said. “Whenever I asked for their opinion, they never let me off the hook without sharing mine as well. It gave us an opportunity to discuss what makes people unique, and how we need to respect every individual for their own qualities.”

Bendert taught at the Muskegon Correctional Facility as well, teaching a liberal education course.

Abigail DeHart, who has been teaching at Job Corps this past semester, was not only shaped by the experience, but found out all that she did not know.

“I have realized that you don’t truly know a subject until you need to explain it to others, so it’s definitely helped me to perfect what I thought I knew,” DeHart said.

Still, Stefanek communicates with her students, writing and receiving letters. Although she has lost communication with a few of her students, others still thank her for all she brought to their lives. Stefanek, too, still thinks about the course she taught and wants to continue to work in prisons in the future.

“I’m not ignorant,” she said. “I know what they’ve done, yet I did not see them as their crimes. I see them as people, because we sometimes forget that they are people. It’s (freedom) not about living inside or outside of bars and walls, it’s about freedom through education and liberating yourself from ignorance.”

GVSU professor, Michael DeWilde, developed the program based on Earl Shorris’ Clemente course, designed to teach college-level humanities courses to those who are underprivileged. The Clemente course was started in 1995 and GVSU’s CWC began shortly after in 1998. The program has since gained national recognition as the winner of the American Philisophical Association’s “Excellence and Innovation in Philosophy Programs” award. In addition Muskegon Correctional Facility and Job Corps, CWC has also offered courses at Project Rehab and Heartside Community Center.

The course is offered both semesters and can be found under PHI 375 for Fall 2012 and PHI 376 for Winter 2013.

Additional information can be found at www.communityworkingclassics.org or by emailing DeWilde at [email protected]

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