Be Safe, Stay Engaged

Meet Jean Cheney

Founder, Venture Course in the Humanities in Utah

Twelve years after founding Venture, a Clemente-inspired course in Utah, Dr. Jean Cheney is more convinced than ever of the value of humanities education.

“It opens people up to new ways of thinking about themselves and their world. And it empowers them to make changes they want to make going forward,” she says. “I am a believer because of what I have witnessed.”

When she joined Utah Humanities in 1997 after a career as a freelance writer and English teacher in high schools and colleges, creating a college humanities class for low-income adults was not on her mind. But after hearing Clemente founder Earl Shorris speak a year later, the wheels got turning. In fact, Jean says she had “a sort of epiphany.”

“Imagining the people in Earl’s Clemente classroom opened my eyes to a reality that should have been obvious: all people deserve a good humanities education, are richer for it. And some people may even be saved by it,” she says. “I don’t apologize for that language. Since being directly involved in this education since 2005, I have seen many, many people turn their lives completely around because of this one course.”

It took several years and a generous donor for Venture to be created, but it’s been growing under Jean’s direction since. In addition to the original course in Salt Lake City, there are courses in Cedar City and Ogden. A Clemente-inspired high school course in Salt Lake City is wrapping up its fourth year, and there are plans to create a course in Ephraim, a farming community in Central Utah.

The story of Venture is captured in Hope, Heart, and the Humanities, a book Jean edited and co-wrote with other faculty, published by The University of Utah Press in 2016. It is a book from the trenches that tells the story of how one community adapted the Clemente model and the inspiring ways students have used the experience to shape new lives. Jean hopes the book will be one of many tools to help people start more Clemente Courses.

In May Jean retired from Utah Humanities after 20 years. She was honored with a Distinguished Service Award from the Utah Academy of Arts and Letters for her work with Venture. The award is “given to an academic professional for exceptional services to the higher education community in Utah.” While she plans to work on a book project and spend more time with her four grandchildren, don’t expect her to drift far. Next spring she’ll teach English in the Clemente High School in Salt Lake City, and Hope, Heart, and the Humanities will continue to bring the story of Venture to new readers.

That’s exactly as Jean would hope. “I have been pleased by the positive reception to the book. Through the students’ stories, readers come to understand that the humanities really do touch our hearts and heads and are essential to both,” she says. “People realize that studying the humanities isn’t just for the elites. It’s education that could and should be available to everyone.”

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