It's 5:50 p.m. on a Thursday night at Trident Tech's Palmer Campus. Young students in trendy leggings lounge outside their classrooms, waiting until the last minute to go in. Others, in scrubs, sit silently at their desks, wishing the class would start and end soon so that they can go home.

Room 228 at the downtown campus, however, is different. It's already full of students, full of energy.

The Charleston Clemente Course is a free college-level humanities class for the homeless and disadvantaged, modeled after a national program. The hope is that the study of classical literature, philosophy, art and history will offer a way out of poverty through intellectual freedom.

Mary Ann Kohli, an English professor at Trident, started the local course in 2005.

It's still the only Clemente Course in the Southeast. Because of the economic downturn and recent state budget cuts for education, no other college or director has been willing to take on the expense, Kohli said.

At 6 p.m., dinner is served -- tonight, it's hamburgers made by Kohli.

At 6:20 p.m., guest lecturer John MacNicholas takes his place in front of the whiteboard. He is the former playwright in residence at the University of South Carolina.

"I really like talking about Shakespeare, especially with a group of people who have had as much life experience as I think everyone in this room has had," he said over the crinkling of small chip bags. "It's a little bit different than talking to people who are 19 years old, in that you don't have to tell them what it feels like when a marriage breaks up. And you don't have to paint in great detail how a parent can feel pain if the child does or says something that the parent does not like."

His audience knows this pain and more.

Suzanne Lawler has been beaten and raped multiple times, and for the past five years, she has been homeless.

This is her first Clemente Course. She admits the material can be confusing, but she finds it interesting and applicable. Especially "Othello," because like the protagonist, she is in an interracial relationship. Her boyfriend also is in the class.

"This is a way for me to stay clean," she said. "This is a way for me to change my life, and the trap that I was caught in. Because all I cared about was doing drugs, all I cared about was walking down the street."

Lawler said she has been clean since she started Clemente in January. The course has helped her stay focused, because she has to do homework, read, and write essays.

"I occupy my mind with other things that really help me deal with my addictions."

6:47 p.m. Donald Heyward asked the professor to repeat a word he used: "bulwark." His copy of "Othello" is full of notes. As he reads, he circles unfamiliar terms -- "sardonic," "syllogistic," "sonnet" -- then looks them up in his paperback American Heritage Dictionary.

Inside Heyward's backpack are books from Charleston County Public Library he recently selected to read on his own, books by Plato, Socrates and John Stuart Mill, mentioned in passing by another professor.

"I love education. I love reading. I hadn't done reading in a long time," said Heyward, 60, who took his first drink around the age of 14 and has battled addiction for more than 25 years.

The Clemente Course has contributed to his being clean and sober for nearly a year, Heyward said.

"Something's changed and I can't explain it.

"I can sit in my apartment right down the street from here, for the first time in my life I can sit there by myself and read, and not feel like I'm alone."

The course also has helped his self-esteem. Despite being a veteran who talks proudly of his two successful sons, he often doesn't feel confident. He also was homeless until recently.

"When I get a paper back and I made a 91 on it, something I typed up myself ... it just motivates me to want to do more and do better."

Kohli, also an avid reader, compares her own life to a library book.

Before being diagnosed with breast cancer, she tried to balance her time between her work and her personal life, she said.

"After cancer, I realized that all time was God's and God's alone. My previous divisions (of time) had been arbitrary and benighted. In fact, my life was none of my business; it was not even mine. Instead, like a library book, I was on loan from God and would go back from whence I came. Thus, I figured I had better get busy doing what God would have me do."

She started the Clemente Course six years ago while also teaching five English classes. To date, 360 students have participated.

Without the help of other professors, like MacNicholas, Clemente wouldn't be possible, Kohli said.

7:20 p.m. Class should be over. But MacNicholas is still lecturing, and the nontraditional students are still following along in their books, in no hurry.

When he finishes at 7:28, the students applaud.

"I look forward to coming here, I look forward to coming to class," Lawler said in the hallway. "And you know I may not use it ever again as long as I live, (but) I enjoy it, and it's helped expand my mind to where I might want to do more things. I might want to go to school more. It's just something that I can look forward to."

8:04 p.m. The last student leaves, stepping into the darkness.

Clemente by the numbers

1995: Clemente Course in the Humanities was founded by author Earl Shorris "to bring the clarity and beauty of the humanities to people who have been deprived of these riches through economic, social, or political forces." It is named for baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente.

2005: Charleston Clemente Courses started. Classes run for an hour and 20 minutes twice weekly, and include literature, philosophy, writing, American history and art history.

10,000: Students worldwide who have attended a Clemente Course.

5,000: Students who have successfully completed one.

360: Students who participated in Charleston courses.

30: Students enrolled in the current course.

20: Students who are still active. "The drop-out rate is actually less than what usually happens in my other college classes," Kohli says.

5: Continents on which Clemente Courses are taught.