On any given Monday or Thursday, you can walk into the M Station community room and find a group of adults debating the definition of truth, dissecting Plato’s Republic, or fervently discussing how they connected to Frederick Douglass’ autobiography.
The group ranges widely in age and background, coming together as students of Free Minds, a two-semester course in the humanities offered at no cost to those who haven’t had a chance to earn a college degree yet.
What is Free Minds?
As a program of Foundation Communities’ College Hub, Free Minds helps adults begin new chapters in their lives. The program partners with the University of Texas and Austin Community College (ACC) to offer the course, after which students earn six credits at ACC.
Students graduate more confident in their writing, reading, and communication skills, more committed advocates in their communities, and as stronger, prouder role models for their children.
“People think of improvement as something more tangible: a bigger house, better car, more money,” said one graduate (Class of 2007). “But when you come from a house where you don’t know anyone who’s ever attended college, and now you have someone in your family who has, it’s expected of you. To me, that’s success. My children’s lives are not going to mirror mine, and that’s an improvement. That’s a direct result of Free Minds.”
Creating space for success
For many, tackling a college degree seems impossible while holding down a job, raising a family, and struggling to make ends meet. Free Minds works to remove as many roadblocks as possible, providing a space to think and covering costs of tuition, books, child care, and meals on class nights, all to ensure students are set up to succeed.
I have encountered a feeling I have never had inside a classroom: the feeling of belonging.
And when Free Minds students graduate, they don’t do it alone – over the course of the program’s nine months, each class forms its own distinct personality, and each clan graduates knowing they’ve built new family for themselves. “After eight months around the table with my Free Minds class, I have encountered a feeling I have never had inside a classroom: the feeling of belonging,” said a recent graduate (Class of 2012).
Next week, students from the Free Minds Austin Class of 2017 will walk across the stage to receive their medals after two semesters of hard work and perseverance. For some, it will have been their first time back in the classroom since high school. They graduate with their heads held high, reinvigorated with life and more confident than ever.
As they graduate, the program’s academic director, Amelia Pace-Borah, will be standing alongside them, as she has since early August.
“My favorite part of doing this work is witnessing the transformation of students over two semesters,” says Pace-Borah. “They enter the classroom not knowing what to expect, feeling rusty in their skills and uncertain about whether they belong in a college classroom. Over the weeks of class conversation, writing practice, and shared meals together, that feeling of uncertainty is replaced by confidence and curiosity. By graduation time, students know that they’re capable of contending with great thinkers, and they’re hungry to keep learning.”