Lela Hilton, a part-time English Instructor at Edmonds Community College, got the chance of a lifetime to meet the President of the United States and the First Lady, when she joined colleagues to accept the National Humanities Medal for her involvement with the Clemente Course.
Hilton has been the National Program Director for the Clemente Course for the past three years. The Clemente Course received the medal for improving the lives of disadvantaged adults. The educational course has brought free humanities education to thousands of men and women, enriching their lives and broadening their horizons.
President Obama conferred the medal in a Sept. 10 ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
“The President and the First Lady were very engaging and seemed very happy to be meeting all of us,” Hilton said. “It was humbling and we felt incredibly honored.”
The Clemente Course was one of 10 recipients of the 2014 National Humanities Medal.
The medal honors an individual or organization whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the human experience, broadened citizens’ engagement with history and literature, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to cultural resources.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) manages the nominations process for the National Humanities Medal on behalf of the White House. The National Council on the Humanities, NEH’s presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed advisory body, reviews the nominations and provides recommendations to the President, who selects the recipients.
Earl Shorris, the founder of the Clemente Course, believed that low-income adults could benefit just as much as Ivy League freshmen from learning about the humanities — and that they should have the same access to them.
To qualify for the course, students have to be at least 18 and have an income of less than 150 percent of the federal poverty line, and be able to read a newspaper. The course is made up of the following five classes: philosophy, literature, art history, American history, and critical thinking and writing.
“The course is not graded and is not a competency requirement — it gets them to think more critically about their own lives without the pressure of a graded course,” said Hilton. “If they go into college, they are more successful in basic classes.”
To increase access to this course, students who enroll pay no tuition, and receive the books for free. They also receive transportation vouchers and free childcare during class, removing common obstacles to attendance.
Hilton studied Adult Education and earned her Bachelor of Arts from Antioch University.
She has been teaching at Edmonds Community College since 1999. “I have used a lot of what I have learned from teaching in a Clemente classroom in my classes at Edmonds CC and vice-versa,” Hilton said. “It has been symbiotic and I love teaching.”