Odyssey Alumni Reflect on Program's Impact

“A Challenge with Great Rewards” — Odyssey Project a Springboard for Continuing Education

The 2019–2020 school year was a milestone one for the Odyssey Project at the University of Illinois, marking its first full year as a program fully within the Humanities Research Institute (it was originally established in Champaign-Urbana in 2006 in partnership with the state-based Illinois Humanities). Today, thanks to a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and support from the Office of the Provost, the program offers non-traditional, income-eligible students in our local community an opportunity to complete credit-bearing humanities courses from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS).

According to a recent survey, 80 percent of Odyssey graduates have enrolled in additional college courses. Two Odyssey alumni shared with us the impact of the program and their continuing education experiences.

Justin Hendrix
Justin Michael Hendrix

Justin Michael Hendrix, currently a student at Parkland College, completed the Odyssey program last spring and returned this fall as a mentor for 2020–21. Asked what was most memorable about his experience in the program, he said, “Throughout the Odyssey Project every moment was most memorable. To have an experience as a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student itself was a privilege,” he added, acknowledging the challenges of access to education for local students of color and also for those with difficult socioeconomic circumstances.

Jessica Black, also a 2019–20 Odyssey graduate, is currently enrolled in the Parkland Pathways program, taking courses concurrently at Parkland and UIUC. Her most memorable Odyssey experience was reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Baracoon. “I had this moment at the end where I really saw the similarities between Kossula and myself. Over the course of hundreds of years, and completely different lives, I identified with his grief and his humanity and we were the same. It was really beautiful.”

For Hendrix, delving into philosophy was a transformative experience. Calling it “a challenge with great rewards,” he said the professors’ encouragement to “push our pens” really sharpened the students' writing and thinking. “We would devour and dissect Socrates to Aristotle, even the inequalities exhibited in the writings of Simone De Beauvoir compared to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in a way that speaks philosophically,” he said.

Black added, “The willingness of the professors to build upon your ideas and pull more out of you, along with the opportunity to listen to and expand upon other students’ ideas, really put me in the right headspace for academic thinking.”

Jessica Black and classmates at artist studio
Jessica Black (left) with Odyssey classmates

The COVID-19 pandemic curtailed a number of planned activities in the spring 2020 semester, including Odyssey students’ participation in the university’s Undergraduate Research Week. Where necessary, the Odyssey Project loaned out computer equipment to students and found new ways to learn and connect virtually.

“I don't think anything could have prepared me for pandemic learning and I miss the classroom atmosphere,” Black said, “but Odyssey let me see that I was capable, and that hard work pays off. I do better in my in-person and discussion-based classes, because they feel more like the Odyssey environment.”

For her, the Odyssey experience is a worthwhile one, regardless of a student's goals. “Even if they never do anything else with school,” she said, “Odyssey will expand their world view, their self-confidence, and their ability to think critically.”

Hendrix returned to Odyssey as a mentor, in part, to connect with students who may feel they don’t belong in that space. He wants to students to know that someone from their own community has enrolled and completed the Odyssey course, he said. “I was born and raised in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. This is my city and I go hard for my community! As an advocate it is my duty to ensure civic engagement, inclusion, and equality for all.”

While we await a safe time to return to the physical classroom, HRI has committed to making the Odyssey Project accessible to its students as a virtual experience in 2020–21.

Learn more about the Odyssey Project and how you can support this life-changing program.

Published October 14, 2020