When Pissamai Sae Tang starts talking about the education she received in the Venture program at Weber State University, she can't stop crying; she is so appreciative.
After a life of deprivation and desperation, she snapped up an opportunity to get some university education, which was made possible through the generosity of donors and the vision of educators.
She is one of 19 recent graduates of Venture -- a program that proves a hand up for one individual can lift entire families and communities for many generations. Even though budgets are tight, helping individuals is still the right thing to do.
Two years ago, Pissamai, 53, came to the United States from Bangkok as an aide to an aging Ogden resident. When he died, she was left destitute, without direction, a job or any form of transportation.
Her life took a dramatic turn when she learned about a two-semester college course that doesn't require money or a high school diploma. Tuition, books, child care and transportation are provided. Participants have to meet only two criteria: they must be able to read a newspaper fluently in English and be low-income.
"Since that day I was admitted to Venture, my life getting better and better," Sae Tang said through tears. "It was the first time I was able to go out in two years. It was the first time for my education in America."
Although all students in the program have to speak and write English, this year's graduates were an international group with four Russians, one Ukrainian, two refugees from El Salvador, two immigrants from Peru, one Chinese-Thai immigrant and several first generation Mexican-Americans.
All but two spoke more than one language and for most English was their second language.
Women make up two-thirds of each class. The average age is 38, one graduate was 70. Many of the students are single mothers who have been away from any kind of schooling for years and have few marketable skills.
What they all have in common is a desire to make a better life, and they know education is key even though they quake at the thought of reentering school.
"They are terrified, completely terrified," said Shannon Butler an English professor and director of the program. "The very first class in 2008, one of the students said, 'Everyday my brother e-mails me the following quote --There are wonderful blessings on the other side of fear' -- which became our motto."
Venture at WSU, has been in existence for two years, and they are working to fill next year's class with 25 students.
The program was conceived in 1995 in New York by Earl Shorris who believed that introducing low-income, uneducated people, even those in prisons, to the humanities changes lives. Student take classes in literature, art, history and philosophy. Half of the funding comes from a non-profit organization called, Alternative Visions of the Chicago Community Trust and is administered through the Utah Humanities Council. Weber State University and community donors cover the rest of the costs.
Deborah Becker is a believer. Eight years ago she spent 22 months in prison, and despite a clean record from then on, she had a hard time picking up the pieces.
"I don't want to make it sound like venture is a rehabilitation program because it's not," she said "I did my time. I decided to turn my life around. Venture is what gave me the opportunity to do that. Venture helped me to believe in myself again. In Venture, people took me seriously. After a few weeks, I was addicted."
She was so addicted to education, in fact, she enrolled at WSU full time during spring semester, and when grades were posted just last week she celebrated a B+, B, and two A's for a 3.58 GPA
"It's the first time I've ever graduated from anything," Becker said proudly.
Becker said she hopes to share her addition with others who have trod a similar path, so she's planning a career in social work.
Pissamai isn't sure yet, maybe something in business, but both women say they would never have taken a chance on an education for a better life, if someone hadn't been willing to take a chance on them. For both of them it started by reading an article in the paper, so if you know someone who can read this message and needs a boost pass it along -- Venture may be the adventure of a lifetime.