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President Obama to Award Clemente Course in the Humanities a 2014 National Humanities Medal

Bard College Professor and Clemente Course Academic Director Marina van Zuylen to Accept Award from President Obama at White House Ceremony September 10

Mark Primoff
 Image Credit: Photo by Ralph Alswang, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. – The White House announced today that the Clemente Course in the Humanities is one of the distinguished recipients of the 2014 National Humanities Medal, which honors individuals and organizations 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. Through a 20-year partnership with Bard College and other leading colleges and universities, the Clemente Course has offered a tuition-free, college-level course in the humanities—philosophy, literature, U.S. history, art history, and critical thinking and writing—to adults living on low incomes who have limited access to college education in communities throughout the United States. Clemente courses are taught by college and university professors. Books, course materials, child care, and transportation are provided without charge. More than 10,000 adults have taken the Clemente Course, many of who earned college credits and successfully continued their college education afterward. For the past five years, the Bard College Clemente Course has been offered at the Kingston Library in Kingston, N.Y. Bard College professor and Clemente Course Academic Director Marina van Zuylen will accept the award, on behalf of the Clemente Course, from President Obama at a White House ceremony on September 10. The ceremony will be live-streamed at 3 p.m. on Thursday, September 10, at

“A large number of people have continued and have gone on to college,” van Zuylen says, but “I never think of ‘Clemente success’ as going on to college.” Instead, she says, it means a student who “is now solidly ready to participate” in democracy and the community and engaging with the world in a new way. “Doing something for yourself, not anyone else, reflecting on something, learning—that opens up a space inside of you.”

In the citation for the medal, the White House said the Clemente program was being honored “for improving the lives of disadvantaged adults. The Clemente Course has brought free humanities education to thousands of men and women, enriching their lives and broadening their horizons.”

For many of its students, the Clemente Course is life changing. When Moise Koffi enrolled in the Bard Clemente Course in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he was a recent immigrant from the Ivory Coast, living with his family of four, subsisting as a part-time, low-wage laborer. After graduating from the program in 2000, he went on to college, and in 2013 he received a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from the City University of New York. Today, he is the director of the NASA-funded STEP/ Proyecto Access program at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, serving underrepresented, high-achieving, low-income secondary school students who have an interest in learning and/or pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.

“The Clemente Course opened my mind and the sun started to shine in my life as a sign of a new beginning, similar to the life of the freed prisoner in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave,” Koffi said, stressing that, through his participation in the Clemente Course, he was able to inspire his daughter and son to attend college. “I see the learning of the humanities offered by the Clemente Course as an excellent tool that creates a learning environment in the households of minorities.”

This National Humanities Medal is deeply indebted to the vision of the late Earl Shorris (a 2000 Medal recipient), who created the Clemente Course almost 20 years ago in the belief that the humanities could equip people to overcome adverse life circumstances. His simple, elegant idea has had a profound impact on students and communities across the United States. The Clemente program is broadening Shorris’s original vision to include new populations such as the armed services veterans returning from abroad. Starling Lawrence, Shorris’s friend and publisher, is chairman of the board of the Clemente Course: “I have spent my career working with narrative material, but when I tell people about the Clemente Course, I can honestly say that it is the best story they have ever heard.” Although many students who complete the course go on to college, the program’s deepest goal is to generate the kind of civic engagement that has been denied to individuals and families marginalized by poverty and lack of access to cultural resources.

The Clemente Course in the Humanities was founded in 1995 as a pilot project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As a community-based program, the course mobilizes social services and community organizations, state humanities councils, and institutions of higher learning. The Clemente Course has been supported in this endeavor by a dynamic partnership with Bard College, which for 20 years has granted academic credits to many of the course’s affiliate programs while also providing key support through academic oversight, collaborative fundraising, professional development, and outreach. For more information about the Bard College Clemente Course, which is currently accepting applications for its 2015–16 class in Kingston, please visit For more information about the national Clemente Course and its courses being offered throughout the country, visit or contact Lela Hilton at

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) manages the nominations process for the National Humanities Medal on behalf of the White House. Each year, NEH invites nominations from individuals and organizations across the country. 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. Celebrating its 50th nniversary as an independent federal agency in 2015, the National Endowment for the Humanities brings the best in humanities research, public programs, education, and preservation projects to the American people. To date, NEH has awarded $5 billion in grants to build the nation’s cultural capital—at museums, libraries, colleges and universities, archives, and historical societies—and advance our understanding and appreciation of history, literature, philosophy, and language. Learn more at A complete list of previous honorees is available at For more information, please visit


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This event was last updated on 10-11-2015