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“Growth and Transformation”: Twenty Years of the Hope House Scholars Program

Image of women sitting in a classroom at Hope House.

On the eve of her 30th birthday, Allison had a realization. “One day, I was just sitting there, and I was thinking to myself that right now, I was living my biggest fear — if I stayed where I was, my life was going to go downhill.” She described how what had begun as social drinking to build connections with others morphed into needing a drink every morning just to get out of bed. “I needed to make a change, but I couldn’t just change on my own. I didn’t know how to stop everything and continue my life in a new way.” Her brother told her about Hope House, a residential drug and alcohol addiction recovery program in Redwood City, California. She entered the program that spring.

Hope House serves women suffering from alcohol or drug addictions, who are often referred to the program through the court system, Child Protective Services, shelters, or another county entity. The program is a residential, three-month long experience. Allison describes her time at Hope House as a full-time job: “We would wake up at 6 am, do our assigned chores, and then head to the gym to work out for an hour.” The women would then be in the Hope House classroom by 9 am every weekday morning, where they take various classes on topics such as parenting, computer skills, and nutrition.

One of the courses that Allison took was the class offered by the Hope House Scholars Program. The program was created in 2001 by Stanford Professor Debra Satz, the former McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society Faculty Director and the current Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Professor Rob Reich, current Faculty Director of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and Professor of Political Science. Professors Satz and Reich were interested in bringing Stanford classes to the broader Bay Area community. They partnered with Karen Francone, who at the time was the Program Manager at Hope House and is now the Executive Director of the Service League of San Mateo County. “I knew this was something extra special and a once-in-a lifetime experience,” says Francone. “I believe each class allows our recovering women an additional avenue for growth and transformation.”

“This program grew out of a deep commitment both Rob Reich and I have that the humanities and arts are for everyone, and not just a privileged few,” Satz says. “At a time when our society is so racked by division and by economic and racial segregation, this program serves as proof of how much we have to learn from one another.”

Two-Way Learning

Since its creation in 2001, Stanford professors, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students have taught more than 80 classes to the women of Hope House. Course topics vary in themes, including “The Ethics of a Human Life,” “Estrangement in Fiction,” and “Philosophy and Social Justice.” A team of three to four undergraduate tutors also provides lessons and writing support.

Instructors at Hope House often say that they learned as much from the women as the women did from their classes. For graduate and postdoctoral fellows, Hope House can be an opportunity to develop and hone their teaching skills. “I realized that getting to know my students’ backgrounds is crucial to teaching excellence,” says Yunxin Li, a Ph.D. student in History who taught an online Hope House class in September 2020. “Sometimes students did not participate actively in class because they had other challenges in their lives. Instructors cannot really help them learn without understanding these circumstances.”

Understanding and acknowledging women’s circumstances can sometimes involve shifting the curriculum to include topics that may not be as relevant in an undergraduate class. Kristin Laryea, a Ph.D. student in Education, describes how she acknowledged the women’s real-life experiences in her teaching: “Most of the women in the course I taught were moms. That was one of their most significant identities and something that was important to incorporate in course conversations and content.” The diverse life experiences of the women at Hope House also create a two-way path of learning. “Teaching at Hope House involves encountering women across many generations and with experience of life, love, and work,” says Professor Reich, one of the co-founders of the program. “For that reason, they come to the discussions with strongly held views; they are not intimated by faculty; they are not deferential.”

For undergraduate tutors, Hope House Scholars classes offer rare opportunities to interact with a diverse group of women who have interesting views on the philosophical, social, or literary topics covered. I have been tutoring since Spring 2018. For me, the Hope House classes have been the best part of my Stanford experience. There are no grades at Hope House, so I find that the discussions are motivated by a genuine interest and investment in questions about love, feminism, citizenship, or other intimately human topics. There are pieces of wisdom that I have gleaned from conversations at Hope House that I do my best to remember and enact in my own life — ideas about perseverance, about family, about self-honesty.

Other tutors share this sentiment. Josie Brody, who has been tutoring since Fall 2018, reflects on the gratitude that many of us feel for the way in which the women engage with us and the class material: “I remember standing outside with one woman who explained about a terrible doctor’s visit she’d just had, and about these awful symptoms she was having, and yet she still engaged with us in the discussion. I remember just feeling so profoundly humbled that she and so many others … were sitting with us and doing these readings.” Brody and I also continued to tutor on Zoom during the pandemic. The tenacity and engagement of the women made TAing these online classes — despite sometimes shaky Internet connections or audio troubles — the best part of my week.

The Hope House Scholars program would not be where it is today without the leadership of Joan Berry, Executive Director at the Center for Ethics in Society. Berry began managing the Hope House Scholars program in 2004 and has since provided invaluable support and mentorship to instructors, tutors, and the women at Hope House. Professor Brent Sockness, former Faculty Director of the Center’s Undergraduate Honors Program and Professor of Religious Studies who also taught a course at Hope House, says that Berry’s work “provides a unique and important service to the community, and it’s now in the DNA of the Ethics Center thanks to her dedication over many years.”

New Beginnings

“Our classes are a chance for women to be students and not addicts, to focus on something other than recovery,” says Berry. The women at Hope House come from a variety of educational backgrounds and experiences, and many of them have been out of school for years. However, the opportunity to engage in academic writing and discussion can offer a form of “non-traditional recovery” that has an impact beyond the classroom.

“When people who are doing well in academia come to talk to those of us who have hit rock bottom, it really helps to break barriers,” says Allison, recalling her time at Hope House. “Having a connection with a tutor or instructor can give you confidence because if you can communicate with someone who’s different from you, that’s a hard thing to do.”

Upon completion of a Hope House Scholars course, each woman receives a voucher to take a future Continuing Studies course free of charge. Allison used her voucher to take a course on improvisation in life and work as well as a class on public speaking. At the time, she was also working full-time at her job as a driver and customer service representative at Facebook. Despite this demanding schedule, she knew she could now trust her ability to manage a balance of work, life, and studies.

Her success in the Continuing Studies courses gave her the confidence to enroll in community college and pursue a major in nursing. When asked why she chose to go into nursing, Allison says, “At one point, I had no hope. But when I was sick and needed help the most, there were always people there who were skilled enough to help me and give me another chance to try again.” Allison is on track to graduate community college in 2023 and then enroll in nursing school. It’s important to note that not all Hope House alumni take the same path that Allison took, but she is certainly not alone in choosing this route.

A Building Block

Ultimately, the Hope House Scholars classes may not be the perfect fit for every woman and her unique situation at the time. However, Berry says that “even if a woman relapses, the seed has been planted. She can build on this new foundation, making her stronger as she moves closer to recovery. I think the Hope House Scholars program is an important building block for helping the women achieve their goals.”

For some women, this building block may inspire them to continue with education, as it did for Allison, or motivate them to pursue certain job opportunities, or simply give them confidence in themselves. Hope House therapist Ruby Cvetan says that for the past 20 years, she’s “had the opportunity to watch our women be challenged to expand their horizons and come to learn that being under-educated is not a reflection of their intelligence or their potential for success and achievement.” She notes that the effects of the Hope House Scholars classes can be intergenerational, as many of the women who were inspired by their own learning opportunities go on to inspire their children and grandchildren to pursue their own education.

For Alexandra Kennedy, a Hope House graduate, the courses inspired her to volunteer in a women’s jail and juvenile hall. For several years, she taught health-related classes to inmates and discussed the importance of continuing education. “I verbalized to them frequently that they are special and that I loved spending time with them, because that’s how I interpreted the time that Stanford professors and tutors spent with me — and it made a difference in me.”


Hannah Kunzman is a senior studying Philosophy & Religious Studies with a minor in Spanish and honors in Ethics in Society. She has tutored for nine Hope House classes since Spring 2018.