Education is liberation

How The Odyssey Project redefines higher education

Odisea Little Village0283 by Glitter Guts 2023 banner

By Hannah Kucharzak

Read Time 6 minutes
March 29, 2024

The Odyssey Project/Proyecto Odisea is a student-centered, college-accredited humanities program rooted in the belief that education is liberatory. Designed to serve income-eligible adults in Chicago who have had limited or no access to higher education, this free program allows students to receive a holistic, interdisciplinary humanities education and earn up to 11 college credits from the University of Illinois Chicago, transferable to any accredited university.

But college readiness is just one outcome of an Odyssey education. When we look closer, we can see a growing community of students and educators redefining what higher education looks like.

“When I first started Odyssey, I was hoping to gain more knowledge on the humanities. I wanted to learn more about how people think, and about our differences—how we each have a voice and choose to use them,” shared Malina Damjanovic, a currently enrolled Odyssey student. 

“Through Odyssey, I learned that there are a lot more opportunities for people that are willing to learn. Age, gender, and race are never a factor. If the willingness and determination are there, then so is the knowledge.”

An Odyssey classroom breaks down the walls of what students often experience in a traditional classroom—a feeling of competition with their classmates, or a disempowering relationship between students and instructor. Instead, the Odyssey Project believes that learning is best done in community, and values lived experience as a significant contributor to one’s knowledge and desire to learn. The program empowers students to speak up, use their voices, and nurture their ongoing passion for learning thanks to a vast and supportive community of alumni and educators.

For many students who didn’t feel at home in a traditional learning environment, the Odyssey Project is just different.

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    Students attend orientation at Haymarket House in Uptown. (Photos by GlitterGuts)

  • Odyssey Loop 8979 by Glitter Guts Reviewing Coursework 2023
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    Uptown Odyssey Project students during a classroom discussion.

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    Students complete a writing exercise at the Odyssey Project’s Loop location.

  • Odyssey Bronzeville 9170 by Glitter Guts Community Agreements

Where students and teachers learn together

In 2023, Illinois Humanities assembled a committee to revise the program’s curriculum for the 2024-25 school year and strengthen its student-centered mission. The committee was composed of students and alumni from the Odyssey Project and its Spanish-language counterpart, Proyecto Odisea, as well as educational leaders from Northeastern Illinois University, Contextos, and Illinois Humanities.

While the program’s commitment to a high-caliber, college-accredited humanities education stayed the same, its approach to instruction and the student experience was re-envisioned.

“Going into this next phase of Odyssey, a core value of the program that we use is something called ‘critical pedagogy,’ which is a way of thinking about teaching that includes teachers and learners as equals,” said Rebecca Amato, Director of Teaching and Learning at Illinois Humanities, who leads the Odyssey Project/Proyecto Odisea. 

“So we're all teaching and learning together, and we all have expertise in our own lives and our own knowledge bases that we share together. And that makes it a student-centered experience.”

The new instructional goals now focus on interdisciplinary humanities and the practices of critical thinking and writing—courses are no longer broken down into units of Art History, U.S. History, Literature, Philosophy, and Critical Thinking & Writing.

This is an exciting change because it’s what makes the Odyssey Project/Proyecto Odisea so unique. Students can draw parallels between subjects, giving them a holistic understanding of the humanities. 

This allows for connections and discoveries to be made—for example, literature and art history can be understood in the context of how U.S. history has shaped movements and approaches to art over time.

Another thing that the committee modified was how involved teachers will be in their students’ education. Two instructors now lead the entire semester, inviting guest speakers to provide deeper dives into various topics. Instead of experiencing four or more different teachers coming in and out of the classroom throughout the semester, students can form closer bonds and trust with their teachers. The outcome is a true mentorship that makes learning more welcoming, meaningful, and community-based.

Education made personal

This dedication to evolution is a part of Odyssey’s core values to continue learning and adapting its approach to better serve its students. In 2013, the program moved away from a traditional, Western canon approach to its curriculum, instead engaging students with more contemporary topics related to their communities and their lives, providing new texts, ideas, and pathways for critical inquiry.

“Many of our students are women of color, so we're talking about things like Black feminism and reading Audrey Lorde,” Amato explained. “We still may be using classic texts. Our philosophy teachers often teach a little Aristotle, but that’s not the core of the curriculum.”

Through teaching relevant humanities material, the Odyssey Project helps students to locate themselves and their lived experiences within larger ethical traditions and practices, and to identify how those histories and schools of thought influence the social and political conditions that impact their lives.  

“My favorite class was the Environmental Studies class,” shared Malina Damjanovic. “It gave me a chance to see how the environment affects us in different ways and the social injustices that sometimes come along with it… from housing to healthcare and even the air we breathe.”

This self-contextualization also prepares students for topical applications of the humanities, like using critical thinking to analyze the ideas and themes in a piece of media, such as news articles, movies, or art. Students gain greater familiarity with historically exclusive institutions such as museums, galleries, and libraries. Demystifying those institutions creates an access point for all people to enjoy the resources within those walls, regardless of one’s background and identity. 

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    An Odyssey graduate receives their diploma on stage at the 2023 graduation ceremony. (Photos by GlitterGuts)

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Removing barriers in and out of the classroom

In the Odyssey Project, free courses are just the start of making education accessible to all. 

Students can also receive free public transit, child- or elder-care, technology rentals, snacks and drinks, and trips to museums, plays, and other happenings around Chicago—at no additional cost. 

These resources help make it possible for students to prioritize their learning without worrying about the additional costs that often put a degree out of reach. And it doesn’t stop at the classroom, either. Odyssey students and alumni will find themselves in the center of Chicago’s arts and cultural scenes with free opportunities to attend events and programs with other Chicago institutions and Illinois Humanities. 

While studying with Odyssey, Malina Damjanovic participates in an Illinois Humanities Long Overdue Book Group—year-round book groups and social gatherings hosted in multiple neighborhoods around Chicago and run by Odyssey Project alumni—and attends a poetry program at the Newberry Library and workshops at the Art Institute.

For students who wish to apply for a college degree after they’ve completed three semesters, the Odyssey Project provides a fourth, optional semester. This college-readiness course will review some of the basic admissions requirements for degree-granting colleges and universities; provide clarity on the process of choosing a major; present opportunities to practice writing, including college application essays; and introduce students to useful resources, such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and scholarships. 

Apply Today

Applications are open now to join the Odyssey Project Class of 2025! Visit to learn more about eligibility and how to apply. If you know someone who would enjoy a a free, community-based, student-centered education, please encourage them to apply! Deadline: June 15, 2024.