HOLYOKE — Between making sure her 8-year-old daughter got to camp in the morning and an appointment at the welfare office that afternoon, Andrea Nina Diaz had a question: Why did the Greek god Dionysus punish his mortal family in Euripides’s tragedy “The Bacchae”?
That was the topic of discussion for Diaz and 10 other women who are part of a novel approach to helping young, low-income mothers earn college degrees.
Bard College and a Holyoke nonprofit group launched what they say is the nation’s first accredited “microcollege” on Aug. 15. The two-year program gives women in this community — many of whom otherwise wouldn’t be able to earn their college degrees — a chance at a free, world-class liberal arts education.
Students immerse themselves in Aristotle, Shakespeare, James Baldwin, and Jorge Luis Borges. They once thought they would never finish high school, yet find themselves debating philosophy and politics.
The students offered answers on the Dionysus question: “My assumption is that it’s because mortals are easy targets,” said Diaz, 26.
“I think it goes deeper than that,” Angelique Vera, 24, a mother of two, said from across the table. “He disliked that he’s part human. He doesn’t want to be seen as half-god. He wants to be seen as full god.”
Even the women seemed somewhat surprised by the conversation that was taking place at Bard Microcollege Holyoke at The Care Center. Holyoke’s high school dropout rate is nearly triple the statewide rate, and its teen birth rate is almost five times higher. Many of the women in the classroom had learning disabilities and anxiety disorders. Several had previously tried, then left, community college, finding a lack of support for their needs and those of their children.
That missing support sparked the collaboration between the Hudson Valley college and The Care Center, a Holyoke nonprofit that helps young mothers earn high school diplomas with the aid of on-site day care, food, mental health counseling, and transportation. Seventy-five percent of Care Center graduates go on to college, according to executive director Anne Teschner — but only about 15 percent finish it.
“Once our supports dropped off, their success dropped off — and we just thought, that’s not the point,” Teschner said.
So she approached Bard, which has developed a reputation for bringing elite liberal arts education to nontraditional students. The Bard Prison Initiative, which teaches in six prisons across New York, made national headlines last year when its debate team beat Harvard’s.
Preparations took 18 months. While Bard applied for accreditation and recruited faculty, The Care Center raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the help of foundations and local donations. Those donations, plus federal Pell grants, will allow the women to earn a fully fledged Bard associate’s degree, tuition-free, surrounded by the familiar supports they need to succeed.
“It’s not a watered-down college,” said Ana Rodriguez, The Care Center’s education director. “The expectations are as high as ever — and even higher.”
Admissions were rigorous: 57 Care Center graduates applied, and Bard selected 20 — roughly the same acceptance rate as at the college itself. The students will be taught by a mix of newly hired adjuncts and Bard faculty, and will be expected to fulfill the Bard common curriculum. In two years, they will get to walk at Bard commencement.
Such a path was unthinkable for many of the students just months ago. Jalene Oliveras, 23, spent time in the shelter system and rarely attended high school. She has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and is uncomfortable in large group settings, she said.
But she found her way to The Care Center in March and graduated as the valedictorian in May. She hopes to earn a veterinary degree at the University of Massachusetts after finishing Bard’s program.
“I wake up and I’m not like, ‘Oh, I gotta go to school.’ [Instead,] I’m like, ‘Oh, I get to go to school — what am I going to learn today?’ ” Oliveras said.
Part of the school’s appeal is that the women share similar backgrounds. They can empathize when a classmate has difficulties with a child, or needs to approach an assignment differently.
Diaz, giggling, said she needs to sniff books before reading them. Because of her OCD, she will only read them if she likes the way they smell.
Her classmates laughed as she demonstrated, but the stakes are serious: Several students said they dropped out of Holyoke Community College because they didn’t feel comfortable displaying their different learning styles.
“We all have our little things that, normally in a college setting, would be distracting or frowned upon,” Vera said. “But when we’re here, we can learn the way we need to learn.”
The microcollege’s liberal arts model also recognizes that the way these women learn best may not be in a technical or vocational school, even if that’s the path society expects of them, said Madeleine George, a Bard faculty associate and Pulitzer-nominated playwright who taught the opening classes.
“They’re so articulate, they’re so fearless, and they’re absolutely flourishing in a liberal arts environment,” George said. “There’s no reason why a person like that should have only the option to go through more vocationally oriented education.”
Bard hopes to expand the microcollege model to other social service institutions in the next year and a half, said Max Kenner, founder of the Bard Prison Initiative and a vice president of Bard College.
Armed with a liberal arts degree, Teschner said, graduates can go on to middle-class careers in the leading industries in Western Massachusetts, such as insurance, higher education, or hospitals.
For the students, though, the greatest benefit is not to their own futures. It’s to their children’s.
“We wake up every day, look at our kids, and know we have to pass something on to them,” Vera said. “So why not let it be knowledge?”