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New ARHA program helps residents access Alexandria history and college credits

Professor Elizabeth Clark-Lewis leading a class (photo courtesy Mike Johnson)

A new program is helping Alexandria Redevelopment & Housing Authority (ARHA) residents get access to college classes.

ARHA has a new partnership with the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and the Social Responsibility Group (SRG) that’s allowed a group of 15 ARHA residents to enroll in classes and start getting credits for an associate degree.

The first class is a six-week history course led by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, a professor of history from Howard University.

Clark-Lewis said that, rather than sit in classes and lecture, she prefers to take students out to experience history.

“This group of students have been very curious and very interested in the contact with history,” Clark-Lewis said. “They’re interested in the context of history, not simply in facts and names. They understand where they’re standing is where this person stood.”

Clark-Lewis said the goal is to help the students connect with resources and opportunities around the region.

Cathy Driver, an ARHA resident and student, has a goal of opening her own business one day. She said she’s inspired by Frederick Douglass and, through the program, was able to see artifacts from Douglass’ life.

“I’m excited to learn about it all,” said Driver. “My parents came from the south when they were in 12th grade. For me and my sisters, they didn’t really know what to tell us. My mother’s side from North Carolina; my father’s side from Alabama… By taking these classes, I can tell my kids about Alexandria.”

While Driver has been researching the history of Black businesses in the region, ARHA resident and student Annette Santiago has been studying the history of Latin American immigration to the region and Alexandria in particular.

Through the program, Santiago was able to connect with a historian from Puerto Rico who helped link Santiago with other resources to use in her study. Santiago was particularly fascinated by the history of immigration to Arlandria and the formation of the Chirilagua neighborhood.

“I’m not from Alexandria and I didn’t know very much about Alexandria’s history,” Santiago said. “Now that I’m in this program, it pushed me to learn more about Alexandria… I was always wondering ‘What is Chirilagua’ and now I know.”

Driver and Santiago are both grandparents and said they were inspired by their families. Santiago said her husband is signing up for the class as well.

Beyond just learning about history, Clark-Lewis said the class helps students build a connection to their community. She particularly thanked Michael Johnson from the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities for helping to get the program together.

“Education frequently helps you develop a network for your own family and community,” said Clark-Lewis. “This wouldn’t have been possible without a connection… There is a reciprocal support network they create, not just for themselves, but for their families. This has a ripple effect, and that’s what you hope to see as a public historian. It’s not the same old boring history: it helps history come alive.”

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