Intern Spotlight: Jonathan Zhang

Listening Actively to Odyssey Stories

What does it mean to be an HRI intern? We sat down with a few of our student workers to find out what being an intern in the humanities means across a variety of fields. Today we’re chatting with Jonathan Zhang, a senior majoring in Computer Science and Anthropology, who interns with the Odyssey Project. The Odyssey Project provides low-income adults in East Central Illinois access to free credit-bearing humanities courses, taught by instructors at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. We have a team of staff, volunteers, and interns, like Jonathan, who help support the program.

Interview by Hafsa Faruqi, HRI David F. Prindable Intern

Jonathan Zhang headshot
Jonathan Zhang, Odyssey Intern

What part of the Odyssey Project has been most exciting or fulfilling for you to work on?

Being in the classroom with the students. Do you know about the details of what the Odyssey Project does?

Yeah, I have looked into it, but can you explain it further? 

The Odyssey Project is a program that offers free humanities courses to low-income, income-eligible students, adults in the Champaign-Urbana community, actually, maybe even beyond that, just anywhere in East Central Illinois. The students come from many different backgrounds, ages, and life experiences, but most importantly they all want to be there because they actually want to learn, which creates a totally different classroom environment compared to my experiences at UIUC with my peers.

In class, everyone brings in their whole selves and their life experiences into our discussions about whatever we’re learning that day in the humanities. The subjects we cover are U.S. History and Literature, for this semester; last semester it was Art History and Philosophy. They also have Critical Thinking and Writing both semesters. I’ve just really enjoyed being in this different classroom environment.

If you could use one word to describe what you do with Odyssey, what would it be?

The first thing that popped into my head was "listen." I offer writing help with students' essays outside of class. A lot of my assistance has really just been listening to what the student had to say and then trying my best to either record it or rephrase it in a way that fits the essay's objectives. When I’m in the classroom, it’s a lot of listening and learning from people’s perspectives on these subjects.

How has seeing adults find and/or return to their higher education influenced your own view of learning?

Learning doesn't stop after college. I'm going to graduate this semester, and it reminds me that even past the undergraduate level of college, you can still find opportunities out there to learn. There are communities of people of different ages and backgrounds who want to learn things. They are passionate students, but college is extremely expensive and there are barriers to access it. With the Odyssey Project, we can help get those people into classrooms and into the environments where they can thrive and learn.

What is your favorite part of working with Odyssey?

Jonathan Zhang at Alexis Pauline Gumbs lecture
Zhang at Alexis Pauline Gumbs lecture

The instructors incorporating relevant social issues into their curriculum, into the classroom discussions. The students' responses are engaging, as well. We talk about a lot of different social issues, especially regarding racism, misinformation, or what’s going on in Palestine. I enjoy the Odyssey classroom: the instructors and students, the kind of space they’ve created. It is very liberating. No one’s afraid to speak their opinion. They connect what they're learning to what is going on in the real world and their personal experiences. That’s one thing I definitely enjoy. The environment is really positive. Everyone's supportive, and they're funny. They’re really funny, so it’s just a fun place to be, in the classroom.

I am also working on putting together a chapbook of students' poetry that they've written for class, so I'm super excited to take charge of that project and to be able create something that reflects students' achievements this semester.

If you could give one piece of advice to people interested in working with Odyssey, what would it be?

Be humble. I'll be honest here; since I don't come from a similar background as the students, I had a lot of preconceptions and prejudice about what they'd be like or the kind of knowledge they could bring to the table. From the very first day, I've had these preconceptions shattered. I've learned so much from the students as I've listened to them participate in the classroom and share their perspectives. So, if you're interested in interning at Odyssey, being aware of where you're coming from—and not coming in with a savior complex—will help you succeed in the position. Also having a passion for the humanities. If you like the humanities, it’s really fun.

Editor's Note

In the 2024 edition of the Odyssey Project poetry chapbook, Jonathan wrote:

I am thankful to Michelle for giving me the opportunity to intern at the Odyssey Project and for allowing me to put together this collection of poetry. I am proud of what we have written and the range of experiences and emotions each person uniquely contributed to this book. I appreciate your vulnerability.

What I have learned during this internship is worth equal measure, if not more, to my three years as a student here at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It has been an invaluable experience to be in a classroom where students, faculty, and community members can come together to practice the humanities and to see how it informs and enriches students’ lived experiences. I am inspired by the students’ lifelong love for learning and the community they have built in the classroom and out. I see a future where everyone has access to such a supportive and transformative environment. To that end, thank you for letting me be a part of this community. Let us continue to learn from each other and from ourselves.

The old world creased in

our faces yet gazing forward

Chatter. Chatter.

Laughter unfurls.

Let it ring.