USJ commission film on engaged students, produced by BBC StoryWorks Commercial Productions

Vítor Teixeira

– Marco Carvalho

It is not exactly a novelty elsewhere, but in Macau it stands out as an unprecedented case. A former inmate of Coloane prison is currently attending the Social Work course at the University of Saint Joseph after he completed some of the modules while still serving a sentence. USJ’s outreach program caught the attention of the BBC Storyworks Commercial Productions, which chose the University of Saint Joseph as one example of innovation. Vítor Teixeira, former Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, and Helen Liu, the coordinator of the project, explain the outreach program and how it works.

Thanks to a pioneering outreach program, a former inmate is now studying at the University of Saint Joseph after he took some of the classes behind bars. What is this outreach program and how does it work?

Vítor Teixeira: This outreach program has three different stages. There is a first stage in which the prisoners remain in prison and our staff will go there and will teach some modules.

Let me clarify this: we are only providing modules in the Social Work degree. We are teaching them modules that are part of the Social Work program. In this first stage, our staff goes there to teach two modules each semester. Each semester we will teach them two disciplines and they receive a certificate for each module they do. This certificate will give them the three credits that correspond to that module. They are not enrolled in the full program. They are doing a sort of free program, in which they enroll in each discipline independently. This is the first stage.

The second stage will materialize after the moment they are released. After the moment they are released – and while they are still in a kind of probation period – we also offer a sort of transition period. They don’t enroll fully in the Social Work program. What do they do? They join one or two modules. In the case of this specific student, he enrolled in two modules; he takes part in the classes with his colleagues in the University’s facilities, but once again, he is not enrolled in the full program. We assume that right after he has been released to enroll in full time at the University, it might be too much, once he is in a probation period. We also prefer to do things at a slower pace. After this period, he will be able to apply – and this is the third stage – to fully enroll on the program. The credits he already amassed will be readily recognized.

How does the program work exactly? Was it the prisoners who reached out to the University? Or was it the opposite?
Helen Liu: Actually, we created this kind of program ten years ago, but it was suspended for a few years and it was relaunched last year, in December 2018. Why did we create this outreach program ten years ago? Because some prisoners wrote to us, asking us to do it. They felt the need to do something while they are in prison and they know that not all the universities provide Social Work Programmes. One of the universities that does provide is our University. They knew that and that was why they wrote a letter directly to us. That’s why we had this outreach project.

V.T: This first project was suspended and remained so until last year, when father Dominique Tyl – the previous dean of the Faculty do Social Sciences –  in a conversation with them, decided to relaunch the program. But, then, when the program started, what happened was that we also had a process of application from the students, from the candidates. Not all the students are accepted; they need to fulfil some requirements.

What sort of requirements?
H.L: The biggest difference from ten years ago is that the contents of this outreach program are really similar to the contents we provide our students in the University premises.

The process of application is really rigorous. We will require the candidate to write a sort of biography so that we can know what is his background and understand why he wants to study Social Work. We want to know what their expectations are, what do they want to do if they graduate in this kind of program.

We will conduct an interview based on what they have written. All the teachers involved in this project have made a commitment to teach inside the prison, but the course we teach at the University is the course we teach inside the prison. This helps us to control the quality in terms of how the teaching goes.

How many teachers are currently involved in this outreach program?

V.T: Two in each semester. So, currently there are four teachers involved in this project: two in the first semester and then we will have other two in the second.

You were saying that the University of Saint Joseph wants to understand what their intentions are by studying Social Work. How do they see the program? Do they think of it as an opportunity to revert their situation and to improve their social status?

V.T: There are two things that I would like to highlight and that are related to your question. This is an investment made by the students. It is an investment both in terms of money and in terms of time. We are not doing this as a pro-bono thing. Indeed, when they apply, the students know that they have to pay to enroll in each of these modules. We have special fees. They don’t have to pay exactly the same that they would pay if they enrolled outside. We organize the payment in a way that it will only cover our expenses, but the students – them or their families, and usually it is their families that come here to pay the fees and to manage everything – but the fact that they are willing to pay should be seen as a commitment to an investment that they are doing in their education. It’s is an investment in terms of money, because they have to pay the fees for each module that they enroll in, but it is also an investment in terms of time, because they have to study. The feeling that we have is that, indeed, these students are really engaged: their attitude in the classroom, the willingness and the desire to learn are really genuine. They are active and, clearly, they see this as a way of recovering themselves and being better prepared for the future.

Last week, I went with Helen to one of the classes. We provide them with some study resources: the copies of some of the slides that we use, some reading materials. In the end of that class, they were kind of arguing because they were not happy with the copies and they told us: “Hey, professor, we want the books. Can you buy them for us? We want to read them and to study.” This is very interesting, because here, at the University, the students don’t want the books at all. They just want the diagrams, so that they don’t lose too much time looking for things. Those that take part in this outreach program, they ask us for the books. They prefer to read the things directly from the books. Their willingness to learn is something that is really impressive.

If they complete those three stages, they will be, of course, be fully qualified to work in a social institution in Macau?
H.L: Yes. They can work for non-profit organizations, but I believe that they cannot work for the Government. Nevertheless, in Macau there are a lot of social services that can provide this opportunity. That’s why we need to make more advocacy for this type of vulnerable population. We have been working with them inside of the prison, so we know their progress in terms of their motivation and we know that we need to make more efforts to help them to re-engage with the community once they are released from prison. The way we work is to try to do some advocacy directed to the society and, at the same time, we try to deliver more professional and social work inside of the prison. That way, I think that most of those that manage social welfare institutions will be aware of what we are doing. There are three different ways in which we can work together.

V.T: The way we look at these students – and we do really try to do this – is exactly the same way we look at our students here. It is interesting because we try to make exams and reports similar to the ones of our students here at the University of Saint Joseph. We might ask the inmates to make extra reports on other different notes, but our position is that it is an academic work and it should be taken as that. The only thing that differs is the space where the classes take place. When they are released and come to us to take part in our classes, we are very careful to protect the past history of these persons. When one of them joins the classes with other students, he will be introduced as another student who already did some modules in the past and he is joining the group now. After that happens, he will have an academic certificate just like any other student.

H.L: This student that has joined us this year, actually he has a full time job in a non-profit organization already. He has a full-time job and he is a part-time student. He is not working as a social worker. He was hired as a helper, but eventually, I believe that he will be a social worker.

What about in terms of age? Who are these eight students? Are we talking about young people? Not so young people?

H.L: Actually, our aim is to train and form future social workers. Having this in mind, we will try to recruit students of a younger age. Their age is between 21 to 40. Once they are released from prison, they are still relatively young, they are still strong and they can devote themselves to social work and give a contribution to Macau society.

Is there any interest in other subjects? You were saying that one of the reasons why the program was relaunched was the fact that the inmates themselves wrote to the University, showing their interest. The program focuses exclusively on social service, but is it possible that in the future other courses might be included in this program?

V.T: Yes, there’s always that possibility. It will depend on our ability to manage the resources that we have and the projects that we would like to develop. If we had more resources we would probably do more things, but in order to have more resources we need to attract more students. It is always hard to manage this. Indeed, as the dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, I need to acknowledge that this initiative implies a huge effort. The prison is in Coloane and I have to allocate staff to go there; one thing is to teach a three hours class here, where my staff is easily reachable, and another, entirely different, is to have the classes taught there. If my staff has to go to Coloane, they will leave at lunch time and I will not see them again for the rest of the day. The program covers the expenses, because the students are paying their fees and I want this to be clear. It’s fair for them that the society knows that they are paying for this service, but the fees don’t cover all the effort that the University is making in order to provide the staff so that this project can subsist.

How many times a week do these teachers go to Coloane?

H.L: Actually, we deliver the classes once a week, but we have mentoring sessions twice a month. What are the mentoring sessions? In a mentoring session we are not providing the students with new information, but students can bring their questions based on what they have learned before. We assign them homework and the mentoring sessions are the place where we answer their doubts. These mentoring sessions will give both the professor and the students more time to discuss in detail their doubts and the questions that they might have about what they have previously learned.

V.T: Unlike the students outside, who don’t like homework very much, these inmates are very keen on learning; they have time and they are really pleased to have homework. A very important part of the learning process is, indeed, self-study and that’s one of the reasons they asked us for the books. They want to read more than what we say that they should read. We assign them homework and these mentoring sessions, in which they receive assignments for the next two weeks, are an important part of the program. After two weeks, they will come and they will discuss the assignments they did.

These are very special circumstances for the teachers. Are they aware of the reason why these men are paying their debt to society?

H.L: In most cases, they disclose their past. In December 2018, when I went there for the first classes, I felt I shouldn’t say anything. I didn’t know them and I didn’t know what kind of topics would be seen as confident, but after a while I understood that they really enjoyed the classes. When there’s already some trust, its curious to notice that sometimes they will use what they have learned and apply it to their personal experience.

V.T: That happens quite often. We have modules of psychology or how the environment affects human behaviour and it is really common for them to become aware of their own situation when we are talking about some specific topics. Sometimes, they use their own examples to illustrate what is being discussed. Things reveal themselves in a very natural way, but, indeed, they disclose. We never ask what they did, but they disclose their stories in a very natural way, usually in the context of the topics that are being taught.