Jean Cheney, associate director Utah Humanities Council
The Utah Humanities Council Westminster Venture Class of 2011-12 poses for a picture.

Most 66 years olds have retirement on their minds.

Not Sherrie Kimball, though.

Her mind is focused on getting a college degree that will help her land her dream job. Kimball has been a paralegal, certified mediator, office manager, volunteer coordinator and Tai Chi Do instructor. She’s also worked a crisis line and trained professionals in HIV education. But Kimball’s lengthy resume hasn’t always meant secure employment.

“Even with my vast amount of experience I wasn’t finding work because I don’t have a college degree,” said Kimball. “I’ve always wanted to go to college, but I’ve always been intimidated. I wasn’t sure I could write a paper because that part of my brain has been turned off for so long.”

But Kimball turned on that side of her brain and found the perfect way to ease into higher education through the Venture Course in Humanties. The Utah Humanities Council began offering this no-cost, year-long college course in 2005 to adults who face economic barriers to furthering their education.

Westminster College in Salt Lake City was the first Venture partner, and then Weber State University in Ogden and Southern Utah University in Cedar City signed on. Venture is modeled after the Clemente Course in the Humanities, started by journalist Earl Shorris 17 years ago in New York City.

“Like all Clemente courses, UHC’s Venture course is designed to develop critical thinking, intellectual confidence and community engagement among people who typically are disconnected in their communities,” said Jean Cheney, associate director at UHC. “It’s our conviction that the study of the liberal arts can help transform individuals and invigorate democracy and should therefore be accessible to all people.”

Venture consists of introductory humanities courses in philosophy, art, American history, literature and critical thinking/writing. There’s no tuition, no fees and the books are free. Kimball jumped at the opportunity to enroll in the 2011-2012 Salt Lake City class where she received credit from Westminster College.

“I really enjoyed the challenge of analyzing small details in art history and found the principals I learned in philosophy really apply to so many aspects in life,” said Kimball. “The classes and the faculty inspired me.”

“Venture illustrates the powerful skills gained from studying the humanities,” said Dr. Bridget Newell, associate provost for diversity and global learning at Westminster. “I’ve seen students gain a voice in politics — in their community. The course connects people in ways they never imagined.”

This spring, 15 students graduated from Venture at Weber State, 10 from Southern Utah University and 16 from Westminster. Kimball was among Westminster’s graduates and is no longer intimidated to go to college. As for her dream job, Kimball’s most rewarding work has been as an AmeriCorp Vista volunteer. She has a certificate in English as a second language that she uses to help refugees adjust to life in Utah and develop their resumes. After her experience with Venture, Kimball says she’s ready to pursue a bachelor’s degree in ESL.

Cheney says Kimball is among an average 30 percent of Venture students who go on to take more college courses. Robin Smith is a 2009 Venture graduate and a current senior in sociology at Westminster. Smith is a breast cancer survivor who moved to Utah when she learned Huntsman Cancer Institute was studying cancer in women of color. She was working as a phlebotomist but kept thinking about getting a degree.

“College seemed so far away, like something in the distance I could see but didn’t know how to reach it. Venture was the bridge,” said Smith. “When I doubted myself, faculty told me they wouldn’t let me fail and they’ve continued to support me.”

Smith was able to enroll full-time at Westminster with scholarships and financial aid and was then accepted into the McNair Scholars program for under-represented students. She credits Venture with giving her the skills to pursue her educational dreams.

“I learned to dialogue with people and if you have communication skills you can succeed at anything,” said Smith. “I’m really grateful for the program. I wouldn’t be where I’m at without Venture.”