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The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Putting the humanities in focus

By Beth Ranschau

It’s 6 p.m. on a Monday night and the classroom fills with 18 students ranging in age from 18 to 65. Spanning six ethnicities and five languages, these are not typical university students–individuals in the program include victims of poverty as well as domestic and criminal abuse.

In the midst of this classroom, it’s easy to see that each student has a different background and a different story, yet there’s no question that they all have an immense desire to learn.

Last year, English professor Jeff Metcalf was part of a project with the Utah Humanities Council called The Venture Program. Through this course, Metcalf met the unique individuals who would become part of a new project this year called Humanities in Focus. Venture exposed 18 low-income individuals to a college-level humanities education, and after completing the yearlong course, each student received eight hours of college credit.

As the program came to an end, the students weren’t sure what to expect next. Dot Richeda, a graduate of the Venture course, said he had never thought about the possibility of a college education before his experience in the course.

“I had gone to high school, gone to business school, got married, had a family and went to work,” Richeda said. “College was the furthest thing from my mind. Venture helped open the door to learn a little bit, but that wasn’t enough. We were all eager to continue to learn. When it was done, we thought: ‘This is it?'”

The same question continued to bother Metcalf.

“In my 35 years of working with a marginalized and excluded population, these were the most profound students I had ever interacted with,” he said. “It wasn’t fair for us to expose them to a higher-level education without doing something more. I asked the class if they would be interested in pursuing a second year. Everyone said ‘yes.'”

Metcalf set out to find funding for the new class, finding its creation easier said than done. A grant would have to pay for transportation, childcare, meals, textbooks, equipment and supplies. Nevertheless, with support from the U’s College of Humanities, the Utah Humanities Council and a generous grant from the Jarvis & Constance Doctorow Family Foundation, Humanities in Focus was born.

In order to develop a successful class that focused on documentary filmmaking, Metcalf enlisted the help of four-time Emmy award-winning filmmaker Craig Wirth.

“Having Wirth join the project was crucial to making the program successful,” Metcalf said. “He is a master of the craft and has the ability to draw powerful stories from the students.”

Since August, the class has met weekly and delved into the complicated and technical world of documentary filmmaking. The course is ultimately directed toward creating a series of mini-documentaries that will tell the stories of this diverse group. There will be a public showing of this work in the spring, following the end of Fall Semester.

The transition from discussing literature and art history to the technical aspects of documentary film has been difficult, but the rewards have been immense.

“It’s not an easy task, and I think that we are always developing new ideas,” said Judy Fuwell, a second-year student in the program. “Just to learn that the camera can tell a story, it takes on its own form of literature. Looking through the camera opens up my mind; it makes me see things differently.”

Students have begun to examine the serious social issues of homelessness and drug addiction, as well as more humorous and zany subjects, such as karaoke singing. “We already have a story to tell, it’s just taken a while to figure out how to tell it,” Linda Martinez explained.

While some of her classmates have taken on hard-hitting issues such as drugs and homelessness, Martinez and her film group are more interested in everyday beauty. “In our film clip, I didn’t want to deal with the hard issues. We live with those everyday. My group is going to focus on eclectic art. We want to look at people that you would never suspect would create art from sculpted marble, graffiti or stained glass.”

Judy Fuwell and Ellen Roberts said they want to examine the effects of drug addiction on families. And as the mothers of meth addicts, these two women have seen not only what addiction can do to adults, but also to children.

“My granddaughter and (Fuwell’s) grandson have had to live with mothers who have been addicted to meth,” Roberts said. “I’ve worked for years with children (of meth addicts), and I want to hear what they think about their situations without necessarily asking.”

As the students watch Fuwell and Roberts’s most recent film clips of an interview with an addict, it is clear that these individuals are telling their own life stories through the lens of a camera. The images’ brutal honesty haunts the entire classroom as the students witness what these women deal with every day.

Yet, perhaps the most incredible aspect of the course is what the students have done for each other. “For me, it’s been inspirational to see where other people have come from and what they’ve achieved,” Fuwell said. “We came in quiet, not knowing what to expect. The course has given me my self-confidence back. It made me realize that I wanted to go to school when I didn’t think I could.”

And if there is any proof of the effects of Humanities in Focus, it’s this: Fuwell has already enrolled in classes at the U and is studying to become a special education teacher. Richeda will be applying to the U this spring.

My sense is there will be more to come.

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